Long before I was the editor in chief of Slate, I was a devoted reader, and Dear Prudence was at the top of my list of Slate favorites, along with departed features like The Breakfast Table (where two writers actually read the newspaper and discussed it), The Explainer (I know two people who wrote The Explainer and are still referred to by me as “The Explainer” rather than their actual name), and Egghead (a roundup of academic news I actually wrote as a young editor at a magazine called Lingua Franca). So when I got here last year, I was so excited to understand how Dear Prudence—and Slate’s entire wonderful advice universe—is still so damn good and useful.
The person with the answers is our own Paola de Varona, who reigns over Prudie, Pay Dirt, Care and Feeding, and How to Do It, ensuring that the most urgent questions get answered and our audience is constantly learning from others’ conundrums. She is also the creative force who came up with a bunch of our fun surprises this week, and is a well of ideas around, and passion for, helping our readers navigate their thorniest issues.
Here, meet the woman who makes advice at Slate work so well.
Paola, you are approaching one year at Slate, overseeing our advice empire. Is there a piece of advice from this time that one of our columnists has offered to a letter writer that has really stuck with you, or a letter that you can’t get out of your head?
I find that I’m constantly surprised at our columnists’ ability to say the right thing. So, I’m going to give you two. Elizabeth’s advice to a letter writer who wrote in fretting over their friend “scamming charities” really struck a chord with me, as I think it did with many of our readers. It was refreshing to read someone take a really strong stance against shaming people who are struggling financially. And while it may seem obvious, I think a lot of people need to be reminded of this sentiment: “People who struggle financially deserve to have some level of satisfaction with their lives. And that means occasionally buying items that will bring them real joy, which you may consider frivolous.”
And then there’s my absolute favorite letter: Help! I Wanted to Help My Expecting Sister. Now I’m Running an Underground Diaper Operation. I remember sitting at my kitchen table editing this column and bursting out laughing for a good few minutes. In an effort to be a helpful sister, our letter writer somehow manages to get wrapped up in a convoluted diaper black market. Jenée perfectly captured exactly what I was thinking as the story unraveled into madness: “A tarp for the back of your SUV? That should have been your sign that you were doing too much, way too much.” It was one of those moments where I couldn’t help but stop and appreciate the fact that I get to read this for a living.
I realize that I have no idea how many letters we get from readers looking for counsel. Is your inbox constantly overflowing? How do you manage it?
Thankfully, we’ve got a system that ensures all questions aren’t being funneled into my inbox. I’d never be able to respond to an email otherwise! So each of our columns has a Google submission form where our letter writers submit their questions (shameless plug: Dear Prudence, How to Do It, Care and Feeding, Pay Dirt), which then get pulled into various spreadsheets. From there, the columnists, editors, and I can sift through and pull our favorites. It’s a lifesaver! And keeps us all organized when we’ve got so many letters coming in. I read hundreds as we prepared for this week.
Tell us a little bit about what you like most about your role at Slate.
I love that I get to have a hand in all of our advice—so some days, I’m editing a note about how parents can own up to the mistakes they’ve made around their children, and other days, it’s a response to a couple who really wants to use their backyard hot tub in the nude. No day is like the other, which is exactly how I like it! And our writers make the work worthwhile—I love to work with such insightful, creative, and honest people.
Obviously, you can’t do all this alone. Tell us about some of the other folks who work on our columns.
No, without the whole team working behind the scenes on advice, our columns wouldn’t be possible! Bryan Lowder, who’s got his hands in a bit of all of our columns and works to bring us the beloved Prudie, has such a sharp eye for the advice our readers will love. Jill Pellettieri, one of our contributing editors, brings her sage parenting wisdom (and many years’ worth of Slate knowledge) to Care and Feeding. And Cleo Levin makes much of our special offerings for Plus members shine! Readers are in good hands.
Have you ever secretly submitted a question of your own when you were facing a thorny issue?
I have seriously considered it, especially over the holidays. (I used to be an avid advice-seeker back when Tumblr anonymous questions were at their peak, so I’m no stranger to writing my problems down in a neat paragraph and sending them into the abyss.) But I figure it’d be kind of strange to edit advice being given to myself. Instead, I often find pieces of myself coming out through other letter writers, like this 20-something who also has no idea how to invest any of their money.
What should Slate readers make sure not to miss during Advice Week?
Selfishly … everything! But if you’re short on time, I’d keep an eye out for some unsolicited advice from Prudie on how to end friendships, the absolute madness of our columnists weighing in on each other’s fields of expertise, the return of a beloved former columnist, and our advice quiz (it’s hilarious).