S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: It’s very strange when a childhood hobby turns into a lifelong career career. And to feel that kind of responsibility. If I don’t produce more of these comic books, my children. And it’s still ongoing.
S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host. June Thomas. And I’m your other host, Ramona along Reman. This week you spoke with cartoonist Adrian Tolmie, whose voice we just heard. I’m looking forward to hearing the interview. But first, you had some big news, right? Does it change your life?
S4: It has been a strange week for sure. I this week sold the rights to my forthcoming novel. They were bought by the writer and director Sam Esmail, who intends to develop the story as a film for Netflix. But, you know, it’s incredibly exciting. It’s really a great honor. The book is not even out in the world. And the fact that it’s connected with a reader like Sam is really, really gratifying. And I hope that it bodes well for the book’s life when it emerges into the rest of the world in October.
S5: Well, I’m currently reading, I should say, your forthcoming novel, which is called Leave the World Behind. And I am loving it. And it’s extremely it’s one of those books that you have a very clear vision of what’s going on. You know, the look of the place and the people. So I it doesn’t surprise me one bit that it was booked for the movie. So super exciting. I can’t wait for it. I can’t wait for people to read the book. I can’t wait to talk about the book on this show. And it’s just fantastic news. Thank you. So this week you talked to Adrian Tolmie. What do listeners who aren’t yet familiar with his work need to know about him?
S4: So I discovered Adrian’s work. As you’ll hear me explain to him, when I’m arrived in college in nineteen ninety five, I guess the fall of 1995, and I met the coolest girls in my college class, and they were really well versed in all things indie in music and comics and movies. And Zina’s Adrian at the time was publishing an indie comic called Optic Nerve. But of course, he’s not really indie anymore. These days, his comics are published by Drawn and Quarterly, which is one of the two great publishers of comics in the culture. You know, he draws covers for The New Yorker. He’s truly a Gen-X success story. If you think that you don’t know his work, poke around on Google and I, I’m pretty sure you’ll find something that you recognize. His covers for The New Yorker are really beautiful. They really capture his ability with the line and with the ability to freeze narrative in an image. And they’re really beautiful pictures. He’s a great illustrator. And if you do know his work, you know, I think just prepare yourself because this conversation was so illuminating. Adrian is the rare artist who’s truly insightful and articulate about his own work. It was really such a treat to talk to him.
S5: Amazing. Well, I can’t wait to hear from him before we hear the interview. I just want to give listeners a heads up that we’ve got a slightly different post interview feature this week since the show is about process. We wanted to talk about the reporting, writing and production process behind a big story we published on Slate this week on July 21st. We published a feature called The Class of RBD. A look at the 10 women in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Harvard Law School class. It’s a multipart story and to podcast episodes. And I’ll be talking with Dahlia Lithwick and Molly Olmstead about how that package came together, its long journey from initial idea to final publication.
S3: But right now, let’s hear Remands conversation with Adrian Tollman in.
S6: The way that I like to begin is just by like a point blank, like, imagine you ran into me at a party for your wife’s job and someone who didn’t know you at all said, hey, what do you do? What do you do, Adrian?
S2: That’s the premise of it. Makes it extra extra tough to answer, because it’s something that I’ve gone through my whole life even before I was married, and I had to explain myself to girlfriend’s parents or things like that. And it’s actually gotten easier with time because, you know, I started doing this when I was a teenager a long time ago, and I would have to explain to parents that I was a cartoonist. And then they immediately think of something really childlike. And then I’d say, why I do adult comics? And then they’d be horrified. And then I have to pull it back and try and explain that it’s it’s for adults, but it’s not pornography. Pornography. But yeah, I remember at first being uncomfortable with the graphic novel term and kind of nit picking it with all my cartoonist friends and talking about like, well, technically Mouse is in a novel and, you know, all these things like that. And then eventually I got broken down because it was such a perfect way to explain what I do to regular people who now all seem to know that term and the connotations of it. So yeah, I would probably say I’m a cartoonist or I make graphic novels or something like that.
S6: You actually write about this in your new book, but I share your sense. The graphic novel is a very unwieldy term that we seem to have landed on. By not quite consensus, but positive. By giving up the fight for a more accurate term like, as you said, Mouse, which is Art Spiegelman’s sort of grates two volume memoir of his father’s experience, daring the Holocaust is not a novel, but it is often referred to as graphic novel Fun Home. Alison Ducktails, really beautiful and affecting memoir, also not a novel. It’s often called a graphic novel and Persepolis.
S2: I mean, some of the best as graphic novels are non-fiction memoir.
S6: Right? And actually, that’s why I’m talking to you today, because you have written a non-fiction memoir called The Loneliness of the long-Distance Cartoonist. And in this work, you have the book opens with you depicting yourself at eight years old. You’re the new kid in school and you are declaiming your love of comics to anybody who will listen. None of them are interested. It’s clear to me that you see some relationship between Jews of a childhood fascination with comics and now having made a career, as you refer to yourself, as a cartoonist. But are you surprised by that? I mean, you’re a dad. You know, I in my head right now is really into dragons. I would be stunned if three decades from now he was like a world famous dragon expert.
S2: You right? Yeah. I think I mentioned this in the book that I am grateful for the way my life turned out. But I don’t know that I would recommend it as a as a game plan for it for anyone, especially especially my own children. It’s definitely playing the long game where a good chunk of my early life was kind of unhappy or lonely or atypical and there was a great payoff in adulthood. But it’s a big ask to tell someone like go through this horrible experience and then 30 years from now, it’ll be amazing how it pays off.
S6: It’ll all have been worth a little. Right. All right. So you in your adolescence back as a teen, you were doing this comic strip that you published sort of as a zeine, as an independent comic that was called Optic Nerve, and I should say now. I so I was born in 1977. I’m just a couple of years younger than you. The two coolest, most beautiful, amazing girls at Oberlin College were like huge optic nerve girls. Like, it’s like a it’s a good totemic taste for like a certain kind of really cool girl. And I can just like I can picture these two girls who are good friends of mine. So clearly I’d like just I remember them like explaining to me what optic nerve was or what love and rockets were. So it’s like a thrill to us to say, that’s your face. And I know you know what I’m talking about. But so you sort of began your career doing that. You kept at it through high school and into college and then drawn and quarterly, which is the great Canadian publisher of comics. And what we have just decided to call graphic novels became your publisher and they are your publisher to this day.
S2: Yeah, that’s absolutely that’s absolutely right. I think there’s a little bit of a misconception that I was just working in private and drawn and quarterly, scouted me out and came to me and said, we must publish your work. And it was actually a lot more calculated on my part. And I was obsessed with them as a publisher and wanted to work for them very much and was basically harassing the publisher with with submissions from on an ongoing basis for a number of years before they they ever responded to me.
S6: So you weren’t you weren’t discovered at the luncheonette counter like a Hollywood starlet?
S2: No, I think I think that’s a more flattering version of the story.
S6: So what what are the things that makes a conversation like this maddening is that you work in a visual medium and we can’t you know, the audience can’t look at it and say, and I can’t just hold it up and say, like, hey, look at this. So what I’m going to do now is, like, truly awful. But I’m going to ask you to describe your visual style. I mean, I ask you to explain to people listening who may not know the work, what the work actually looks like to make that even more complicated.
S2: I think there are a couple of modes that I work in. And I really do think of myself as having two separate careers, one as a guy who makes comics and one as an illustrator for magazines and advertising, and mainly these days for The New Yorker. So I think there are probably people who would recognize my work or they would know who I was. If I describe, say, a New Yorker cover I did where two people were passing on opposite subway cars. And for a minute they see each other and they’re holding the same book. And that is a lot more of my two modes of working. It’s more detailed. It’s more composed. It’s always in full color. And I tend to use a bit of a muted leaning towards pastel palette of a flat color. It’s not painterly at all. Then for my cartooning work, especially this this new book, I’m trying to visually create, like the equivalent of my handwriting. It’s not as thought out. It’s not as planned. I’m not using a million different esoteric tools. I just have a pen and a sketchbook. And I’m trying to get these anecdotes as clearly as possible onto paper from my mind. And so it’s a thin black and white kind of scratchy line. And, yeah, maybe a little bit less realistic. But I think the two styles would have certain things in common, like there’s definitely a striving for clarity that I that I put into both of wanting to make sure that nothing is confusing to the viewer or the reader. And an effort to convey as much as possible visually through through facial expressions, poses, settings and things like that.
S6: When you look back at your early work, because there is so much of the early works of trailing you around. Unfortunately, right now, unfortunately, I mean, that sort of says it all. But, you know, beyond the fact of like that, it’s sort of Cringely to look at whatever you did as an adolescent, you know, even like the world’s greatest novelists. It’s going to feel that way about something she wrote when she was 17 or 18. Beyond that fact of cringing, what differences do you see? Like what? Is there a point in your body of work where you think, OK, this is when I hit my stride. This is when I became the artist that I set out to be?
S7: No, I, I, I always finish every book that I’ve done with a sense of defeat. I always feel like I I stumbled across the finish line. And, you know, when you see footage of racers finishing a marathon and they stumble across and they vomit and they collapse. That’s usually the feeling that I have. I think my previous book, which was called Killing and Dying, I think I reached a different balance in terms of what I had envisioned and what I arrived at. The discrepancy wasn’t quite as as great as it had been with all my previous books, which was a shock to me because it was in terms of creating it that the circumstances around it were the most challenging I’ve ever had because it encompassed the birth of both my daughters and my wife getting her P HD. And it was just kind of madness in our house for for that time. And it took me seven years to get it done. And by contrast, other books I’ve made were done in complete with complete freedom, you know, children living alone, setting my own hours, working as much as I want. So that was that was a shock to me. And maybe it says something about what conditions I thrive under.
S6: I feel like I’ve heard so many people in creative professions or maybe even all professions talk about those kinds of constraints. Actually, ironically, being really good for the finished product is right. Yeah. I mean, it’s that’s something I tell myself as a way of justifying, you know, like Ivan, I didn’t publish a novel in the many years before I had children. And then in the years since I have had children, I have written three. So it’s like, you know, there is some kind of relationship there that like a constraint on your time teaches me anyway, something about how to actually use the time.
S2: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I definitely have found that it could take me, you know, roughly the same amount of time in terms of days to finish a New Yorker cover now than it did, you know, when I didn’t have kids, except that the intensity of those hours now is just so much so much greater. It’s like they’re in the bathtub. Let me close the door. Yes. For half an hour.
S6: Yeah, exactly. Because, you know, at any moment they’re going to come in and ask you for some cheddar bunnies to read a story or something like. Exactly. I don’t know if there are still readers who have this idea that the comic is not a literary forum. But I do feel like the stories in some are blonde and killing and dying and sleepwalk and other stories. They really demonstrate, I think, conclusively that that is a misperception because they are just they are not cute pictures and silly gags like these are stories. Alter Ego is a story about a writer who is struggling to finish a book and he becomes. Kind of obsessively taken with the younger sister of a girl he sort of barely knew in high school in Hawaiian getaway. You have this really kind of odd young woman who is struggling to find meaningful adult connection. And she finds that by making prank phone calls, it’s a really big body of work. And you can’t distill it down to any one point. Like, that’s your your work is broader than that. But that that thing, that search for a connection for human intimacy feels like a motif that you come back to. And it feels to me like it’s very literary.
S7: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s that’s been a big goal goal of mine. I. Some of what you’re describing in my work came from the fact that at the time that I started publishing my work, I was still really working in opposition to at the time what were described as mainstream comics like superhero comics published by Marvel and DC, like they really dominated the market and they really dominated the public’s perception of what comics could be. And so when I look back at some of that work, I almost think I’m straining a little too hard to differentiate myself. And I think that that’s. Definitely what influence some some of that work, including not just the writing, but the art style. The choice when it was actually a choice to work in black and white rather than in color. Sometimes the graphic design of the covers, I was really it doesn’t occur to me anymore. But I think in those days I was definitely envisioning like a hypothetical customer walking into a comic book shop and looking at the rack of comics and seeing mine in between, you know, some superhero comics and trying to think of how I would make my work stand out in some way when you’re working.
S6: This is like I said, this is such a hard question to answer. And I realize this, but does story come before art or just art come in for a story or are they a connected impulse?
S2: The correct answer, according to my fellow cartoonist, is to say that they’re all connected and that you envision everything at once. But the true answer for me is that it’s almost always a story that comes first.
S7: Now, sometimes it might be. I had an idea for something visual and set that aside. Not sure what I would do with it. And then a story came to me and I thought, oh, yeah, those two would work well together, especially in something like killing and dying where each. It’s a book of short stories and each story is sort of approached in a different visual way. So there were some times where I that’s a case where maybe I had the idea of doing a story that replicated the format of newspaper comics. And then eventually merge that with the actual content of that story. But in general, what I think of as the idea for for one of my books or stories is really about the content of what’s happening in it. Not so much how it looks.
S5: We’ll be back with more of Ruman alarms, conversation with Adrian told minutes after this.
S4: One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration and discipline. Send them to us at working at Slate dot com. If and when we can, we’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests.
S1: All right. Let’s rejoin Remands conversation with Adrian Tolman.
S6: In the introduction to 32 Stories, which is the book of your kind of juvenilia optic nerve. Yes. You wrote The subject matter of these early strips is rather telling parties, friends and dates figure prominently for some reason. And I wondered if you think there’s a tension in your art or maybe in all r between autobiography, which is what your new book is very explicitly, and wish fulfillment. You know those early strips, you’re often in them. You’re often like a part of those early stories. But I wouldn’t say the work is necessarily just about you. And so I wonder if it feels different now to be writing a work that really is just about you.
S2: Yeah, I, I think that one of the struggles for me once I decided to do this book was that I’ve gotten very comfortable in investigating my own thoughts and my mind through fiction. And to me, especially with the book Killing and Dying, I felt like this was the best mode for me to work in in terms of really exploring things that are meaningful to me, maybe troubling to me. It was a way of addressing anxieties in a deeper way than. Through autobiography. And so when I gave myself the challenge of doing a book that was explicitly autobiographical, where people were going to see me as the main character, I was very concerned about that, causing me to to retreat and to feel inhibited. And so I really had to do some some mind games on myself, especially in terms of of not thinking about this as a work that would be read by an audience. And, you know, it’s it’s debatable. I think there’s some stuff in this book that is very heartfelt and very honest and open. But I still think that if you know me and you know my mind and you know how to decode some of those fictional stories in my other books, I think probably that that it still touches on on a wider range of deeper concerns for me that way.
S6: Just to clarify, so that the fiction touches on a wider range or that. So they are you yourself are revealed in the fiction as well as in the autobiography.
S2: And I think, like the right person would would would read it and find it even more revealing in a way. Yeah.
S6: I’ll tell you, I mean, this is like such a this is going to sound like something that you would make up of your own. It’s like one hundred percent true that my kids, first of all, make kids have been fascinated with this pile of books of yours and they both really want to read them. And my older son, who’s 10, was looking at your new book last night, and he was flipping. He just flipped through it. He’s like, oh, you gonna to talk to this guy? And then he said, you should ask him why he doesn’t draw himself with any eyeballs. And I was like, God, that’s actually a really good question, because when you depict yourself, you depict yourself behind a sort of opaque shield of your glasses. And it is a very there is something very guarded about that, even though the book is about you and you’re in a lot of the frames of that book.
S2: Yeah, well, you can check me on this, but I think there are some images in the book where either I remove my glasses or it’s very crucial to see which way my eyes are darting. So I do have a little little dots here in profile.
S6: You can see them.
S2: Yes. Well, the jokey answer is just that. I was very influenced by the character of Marcy in Peanuts. And that just always seemed like the regulator, you know, the right way to draw some out of glasses. Beyond that, I think I really experimented. I definitely have tried all different ways of depicting myself. And somehow this this level of abstraction is the most effective. A lot of people who know me in real life, the main thing they react to this book is how I drew my posture or a certain facial expression that I draw myself making. And it’s a really delicate decision making process in terms of how much detail to put in. And I’ve found that as a reader, well, as a reader of other people’s comics, sometimes too much detail becomes a little grotesque and off-putting, especially an autobiographical work. I know there’s a lot of theoretical work done on this topic, but to me, I just sort of put it into practice and I can draw my I could draw, you know, three versions of my face right now. And, you know, one more abstract than how I did it in the book. And one less abstracted. And for whatever reason, I feel like the one in the middle is is the one that most effectively communicates the story and the concepts.
S6: There is a kind of visual medium that is exhausting and that’s sort of like almost a Where’s Waldo thing where you want to be sure you’re taking in every aspect of what’s inside of the frame. And it’s very taxing on the eye. Right. And in particular, your new book, it’s it’s much it’s much looser than that. It’s much less formal. It’s much more relaxed. Yeah.
S2: I really enjoy or I should say I enjoyed the experience of going to book festivals or comic conventions that were open to the public as opposed to limited to people who bought tickets and chose to come there. And it’s always interesting for me to see people who have no concept of my work and maybe not even any familiarity with comics at all, but come to my publisher’s table and start flipping through things. And I’m often really paying attention to those responses because I think it’s for me, it’s important to take into consideration a readership that maybe didn’t grow up reading comics and isn’t completely immersed in the minutia of of the history of comic. And all the different symbols and codes and so especially with this book, I wanted it to be something that in one of those now hypothetical situations, I might see you, I might see someone just walk up, pick up the book and start reading it rather than being perplexed by it.
S6: So in the loneliness of the long-Distance watchfulness, you write about your development as an artist. You write about the heights of your career. You write about some of the humiliations of your career. You also write a lot about yourself as a human being, as a husband, as a dad. And you say, what’s the end of the book? For most of my life, I’ve felt like anything other than working on comics was a distraction. And that’s insane. But the book concludes with almost this renewed attention to the form itself. So I wondered if there was a period in your life where you had a crisis of faith about your work. And I wondered whether that period in your life is past or ongoing.
S2: Well, yeah, that period that you’re describing is documented kind of in real time in this book. Looking back on my career, looking back at how I’d spent my life taking stock of how much attention I’d put into comics, either as a fan or as a as a as someone who makes them. And it’s ongoing. Yeah. I mean, like I say in the book, it’s it’s very strange when a childhood hobby turns into a lifelong career career. And I think if that happened to every single person on the planet, it would be the most it’s the most I’ve seen world.
S6: He’ll be a very different kind of society. Yeah. Very different kind of place, you know.
S2: Yeah. It’s gone in in waves. I mean, I think it was a strange experience, especially like I described when I was working on my previous book, when I became a parent for the first and second time. And my wife was basically struggling to finish her dissertation. And so to feel that kind of responsibility, I mean, just I think in general that responsibility would have been a surprise to me. I’m talking about, in terms of time, taking care of people financially, but then to realize that it was all resting on this. Kind of strange childhood hobby, like like if I don’t produce more of these comic books, my children won’t eat. I was a very, very strange time and. And yeah. And it’s still ongoing. And also, I have different priorities now than than I. I think when I started out and I like the idea of now sitting down and starting a new book that’s going to take me 10 years to complete. And and and I’d need to work seven days a week on that. I just don’t want to do it. I honestly would rather. Get a job at a bakery. I like making. I like baking stuff. You know, I would I would rather do that and come home at the end of the day and have the workday end. You know, the thing with with making comics is that it’s always the work is always ongoing in your brain. And sometimes that’s useful. I mean, I, I have written or solved a lot of problems about the writing while on the playground and pushing pushing a swaying or something like that. But I you know, I also don’t want to have that feeling of of looking back on this. To me, what now seems like a very brief window of my life for the kids will be living with us. I mean, it used to feel infinite, used to it used to say never ending. But it’s my my oldest is the same age as yours ten. And I’m already starting to get a little bit of that feeling of like I could do. I could mark this on the calendar when this is probably gonna wind down and I don’t whatever I might achieve in the next eight years in terms of comic books especially, I don’t think it would really mean that much to me if it meant missing out on spending as much time with her as possible. You know.
S6: I’m really torn about asking you about race, because no one ever asks white artists about race. You know, even though work that declines to engage in a conversation about race is also in its own way about race. Of course. You wrote a book called Shortcomings That the really beautiful standalone story. It’s a long story and I feel like it has a lot to say about race. But I’m not I’m not gonna ask you about that. I mean, I asked you about a very brief chapter in the loneliness of the long-Distance cartoonist. It’s kind of an aside in which you recount meeting an artist whose work you’d long admired and you try to strike up a conversation about work. And he comes back with, are you Japanese? Why did you include that story in this book?
S2: Well, for a couple of reasons. One is just that it instantly went into that file in my brain. This belongs in the same story of kind of not exactly arrogance, but but me starting to feel like I’ve reached some new level of acceptance or recognition and swiftly being brought back down to reality by other forces. Also, because although race hasn’t been a hugely prevalent topic in my work, it has basically what I describe or depict in that story is a feeling that has kept popping up throughout my entire career, which is to say that no one has ever been even, I think, intentionally discriminatory towards me. I don’t think that there’s any been any hatred or anything based on race directed at me. But there has always been that little hint, that little reminder that I’m in a world that for most of my career, I look I look different from and. Yes. I think I just wanted to put that in there, I felt like it needed to be a part of this story, which is that there were a lot of ways that I felt a little bit on the outside of this endeavor of mine, whether it was doing comics that were considered alternative, that didn’t fit in with all the other stuff that I was surrounded by when I was at a comic store trying to do a signing for the two people who showed up or whatever, you know. But also, I wanted this book to be as specific as possible. I didn’t want this to be the generic story of a cartoonist. I wanted this to be very specific to my experiences.
S6: One thing that I’ve heard you talk a lot about, and I think, you know, cartoonists are always going to be asked about their influences in terms of their colleagues and the other comics that have come before them. But I’m really interested in what you’re reading and what you look at and what inspires you. That’s not comic.
S2: It’s hard to say because I think one of the main challenges for me over the course of my career is to try and. Successfully absorb or assimilate influence without it looking like copying. Which is basically how I learned to do everything. I didn’t go to art school. I never had any kind of formal training about comics or any kind of art. And so my version of instruction was buying books or comics or watching movies and emulating them flagrantly. So in many cases, I think with other books, there’ve been more very specific points of reference. Like I know that when I made shortcomings, I had just finished reading every book by Philip Roth. I got really interested in him and read all the Philip Roth and then started making that book. And I think that there’s some correlation there for sure. But I think with this book, I think with the loneliness of the long-Distance cartoonist, I think people expect me to be able to point to an equivalent in terms of memoir or. Non-fiction, cartooning. And I mean, maybe I’ll come back to this book years later and say, oh, God, I know what I was ripping off. But for me at least, it wasn’t an attempt to. To let the material flow directly from my experience through my processing in my brain and onto the paper. And I in many cases throughout my career, I would get up from a drawing board and say, like, gee, how did how what’s the best way to draw clouds? OK, let’s see. How did how did Himy Hernandez draw clouds or how does Julie do, say, draw clouds and, you know, go through it, go through the list of these influences. But with this, I really tried to not think I would just in that case, I would say just quickly draw a cloud, whatever that means, just do it. And I think I was almost consciously fighting off that urge to get up from my table and look to see how someone else had done it.
S6: I mean, this is such a weird time to be publishing a book. Yes. It’s such a weird time to be. I mean, you mentioned you had a really lovely way of talking before about being at a convention and being able to watch a casual reader or new reader engage with the work and lengthen because your work is not just words on a page, it’s them as just on a page. You can watch the the responses different. Like you can probably see how people move their bodies in a different way when they’re flipping through a comic than through a novel. Oh yeah. And, you know, I would imagine that there’s some amount of fear in publishing a book that’s just so obviously about yourself and the stuff of your life. And, you know, but I think it’s I hope you can put all of those anxieties away and enjoy that you’re sending it out to the world.
S2: Well, if if I had to pick which of my books would come out in the midst of a global pandemic, this would be the one that I would pick because I I love the idea that I can just send this out kind of from my studio out into the world and not necessarily have to face the public just this time around.
S6: Here’s a look. Lob a snowball over the fence and then just duck, you know.
S2: Yeah, yeah. It’s great for for the the cowardly impulse of putting it out there and then just retreating back into anonymity.
S6: This is such a great conversation. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you.
S2: My pleasure. I really appreciate it.
S1: No, because working is about the creative process and how people get their work done. I wanted to take a bit of time today to talk about how a big sleep package came into being. I’m joined today by two Slate staff writers, Dahlia Lithwick and Molly Olmstead, whose huge journalistic project, a lot of words on the screen and to podcast episodes, all about the class of RPG. That is the nine of the women who were in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Harvard Law School class came into being. We just published that piece this week. And so it’s time to talk about it. Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus. Hi, Dalia. Hi, June. And Molly Almstead is a Slate staff writer. Hi, Molly. Hi, Daryn. OK, let’s start from the beginning. Where did the idea for the class of RBD originate?
S8: Dan Kois, his wife, is the short answer. She watched the movie, the biopic on the basis of sex.
S9: And watch, there’s this famous scene that everybody talks about. Erwin Griswold has all it’s 1956, it’s the autumn, and all the women in the class of fifty nine at Harvard, all of them are invited to his home to explain. One by one, painstakingly why they took a slot from a man at Harvard Law School. There were 10 women in the class, including our B.G., 500 plus men, and they had to justify it. So I think that the genesis was, thank God, a woman watching that said what happened to those other nine women? And we were off.
S1: Amazing. Okay, great idea. How did you move from great idea to what became this huge piece in a two part podcast series?
S10: Well, the first step was trying to figure out who these women were, which there was nothing online that had a list of these women. So I had to sneak into Georgetown Law Library. Here’s the felony part of this story. Yeah. Hey. Hi. We had an intern at the time who I brought her along because she was an undergraduate student, I believe. And so we just kind of were hoping that if we got caught that I would at least, like, have someone to point to to be like, look, it’s all fine. But, yeah, ultimately I just sort of like walked in with confidence and no one really stopped me. So we got these yearbooks and I sort of, you know, took some photos of this yearbook, wrote down some names, and then we were just trying to figure out through, like the Internet mostly who these women were. And it wasn’t it wasn’t super straightforward. But, you know, we eventually got there.
S11: Can you remind me how many of the women of the class of 59 are still alive?
S10: Yes. So we had Carolyn Flora, who were the two who talked to us. Obviously, Justice Ginsburg and then two other women who, for whatever reasons, were just not comfortable being in the audio part of this project. So that was Betty Jean and Trudy. So for women other than Justice Ginsburg, were there any that were just really hard that that actually took some serious sleuthing to track down Trudi’s the really tricky one, because she was not in that 58 or 59 year book. So we really did not find out that she was part of this class until we actually had her. Well, actually, I think we e-mailed Justice Ginsburg and we got back this flight being like, I think you missed one. And then so I did scramble. I was. So, I mean, I was embarrassed, but mostly I was just like in all of this woman and her just remarkable memory. So we it did take a while to find out who she was. But ultimately, we had someone on staff who went to the same undergraduate university she went to. And so I was able to use his blog and information to get to some sort of alumni directory. So there’s a lot of me pretending to be people who are not. And then we were able to find her married name from that and track her down.
S9: But yeah, mine’s like the James Bond of reporting. Like she was just it was amazing. She was so dogged. And it maybe it’s just worth saying explicitly that part of the reason it was complicated. I don’t know about you, Molly, but I keep getting e-mails from people that say, like, well, my mother was in that class and she says there were nine people. There were ten people. And the number kept changing because people dropped in. People dropped out. There were people we know one of our women transferred in as A to L, r, b, g left is a 3L Trudy dropped out after her first year or so and and their names were changing. And so there was just, you know, it was nothing that we were, I think, anticipating in terms of at no point in this project was there like a stable number of women with consistent names. And that was just very, very tricky. And that was where Molly was just a mad woman. She just wouldn’t let it go.
S8: And some of these folks were anxious about talking on the phone, very anxious about talking on the phone. And Molly, just unbelievable ability to just, you know, persist, but also just like. Absolutely. Generously protect them.
S1: Molly, as you mentioned, we don’t hear from everyone on the show, on the podcast. Some of them didn’t want to be recorded. I imagine just because I know that in audio, if you don’t have the voices, you don’t have the story. People are always pushing for that. I understand that at some point that protectiveness actually kind of had you pushing back against other members of the team. Can you talk about how that worked out for you?
S12: Yeah. I spent a lot of time thinking about this because, I mean, I come from. I went to a more, I guess, traditional journalism school that in some ways I feel like some of the professors I had would have said that I was being in some ways not a great journalist by making these decisions. But I felt like this project was so different from some of the ones that are, you know, maybe about something that is a little bit more political or has some element where you have to really think hard about making sure you, you know, you’re doing everything right ethically. This one, you know, these are the stories of these women. They’re intimate. They’re very personal. And they’re doing us a favor by talking to us. And I mean, granted, yes, it’s nice for them. For the most part to have their stories out there. But I also was aware that, you know, these women were they were giving me their time. The family members were giving these memories that were really valuable to them. And I just I talked about this a lot with Suzanne, who edited me in this project. And there were times when it would’ve been great to really push for something. But we ultimately decided it just wasn’t worth alienating one of these women. And, you know, in journalism school, there’s a lot of talking about ethics. But and one of the things they talk about is do no harm. And I feel like sometimes we can forget about that one. And I I mean, I personally had to sort of think of myself as a journalist, as a person, as a human being, sort of separate those sometimes and think, you know, as a human being, like it’s way more important to me that I do nothing to pressure these women beyond something that they’re comfortable with.
S8: You know, I think one of the things that Molly kept reminding us was the fragility of memory. And some of the women who talked to Molly, you know, are still alive but didn’t want to be recorded. We’re just really uncertain that they remember things. And I just think, you know, you get this idea, this Zellous idea, like we’re building an archive, we’re building a time capsule like this should have been done 20 years ago. But damn it. Like, let’s get it all down now. And I think what Molly kept reminding us and like for me, it was so profoundly important to be reminded that, like, don’t press people into putting memories, like in audio that they’re not comfortable with.
S1: Yeah, Dolia, a big part of the audio, certainly. And the also off of the text piece was the interview that you did with Justice Ginsburg. How did you secure an interview with her?
S9: That was the that was the Hail Mary. I mean, with with Justice Ginsburg. Sometimes you you have to, you know, go through the press office and they pass it on to her. And sometimes you get a yes and sometimes you get a no. And it was really interesting because she she immediately said she would participate. And it really struck me after that. This is unlike most interviews she does.
S8: And that, you know, I’ve done one with her. For instance, when Glamour made her Woman of the Year several years ago, where she, you know, has a few things that she says and she says them frequently. And I think she loved this project because it was totally different. And one of the things we noticed when we sat down with her was that she was having memories in real time and saying things that she hadn’t said before. I think one of the things that was really striking is she had not done a lot of interviews necessarily prompted by, again, this is Molly’s research. But, you know, to be able to say Flora told us about this lady’s day, you know, like we were able to ask her about things that were not necessarily top of mind for her. And so I think as a consequence, both for us and for her, it was really a lot of fresh material. And that, I think, was one of the things that made it really interesting for her. I think one thing I would say about Justice Ginsburg generally is she always says she said at her confirmation hearing, she said when she was sworn in, you know, we stand on the shoulders of giants. She’s so meticulous to credit the people along the way. I think for her having a spotlight on the women in her class and making the point that this was not just about her, it was about everyone. I think really jibes with how she tries to think about her own history.
S11: This is maybe a weird question, but, you know, as reporters, perhaps you’re an exception, Dalia, because you focus so much on the Supreme Court and the law. But we don’t tend to have a lot of interaction with octogenarians or even just generally older people. You was. Were you kind of aware of talking to these women? The the the women who are still alive, the ones that you talk with, of talking to them differently, even though, like looking at their bios, they’re all like been on the bench for 40 years. Activists like they’re by no means sort of you know, they may be physically frail. I don’t know. I know. Certainly one of them is. But like, it’s clear their minds are amazing. But were you. Were you just aware of like we we all have this weird way of talking to older people. Like, how much did that come into things, if at all?
S8: You know, it’s funny. I mean, I’m curious what Molly is going to say to this, but I would just say this is another way that covered changed everything. And for me, the age thing was a big part of it, because we just saw, you know, particularly in New York and in March and April, this sense of an entire generation. You know, day after day, someone in their 70s or 80s was dying at my kid’s school. We were getting a notice about someone’s grandparents every single day. And it just made it so poignant for me that part of, quote unquote, coming to terms with the virus was that we were just going to say goodbye to a generation of people in their 70s and 80s and be almost nonchalant about the death toll. So for me, I think, you know, I’ve long said that the thing I love most about covering the courts is the number of 70 and 80 year old judges I’ve known. You know, they serve for life. Article three judges, they don’t become irrelevant, you know, like you do in Hollywood when you’re forty six. And so I think that it made me so very mindful and solicitous that we are dealing with a generation that is so precious and so fragile because of the virus. And that is almost invisible because, you know, the virus is wiping them out. And we’re not clocking it because we think their time has passed somehow. And so that made me really deeply saddened by the fact that we’re not even aware of these extraordinary lives that we’re losing. And so I think was a very long and somber answer. But I do think it’s one of the ways that covered colored everything for me.
S1: Yeah. This was a two episode podcast series as well as a text package. You’re a podcast host, Daliah. I know from the very beginning of your time at Slate, Molly, that you are also a big podcast person. Did the podcast and the text have different needs? Did those needs ever compete? Maybe Molly.
S12: Well, I mean, yes, they’ve felt like two very different enterprises. We were never going to be able to represent all of these women in the podcast part of it. And I think, you know, Dalia and Sara, who produced the audio piece, like they I mean, they just handled it so well because they came to realize that there was like a really neat way to include the women who were alive and Justice Ginsberg without making it too much about any many one person. Mm hmm. And I I would like to say that there is something really wonderful about knowing that if you can’t fit something into one medium, you could probably get it then to other like. I mean, I look recent some of the history of Harvard Law School. None of that made it into the print piece. But, you know, it gets touched on in the audio piece.
S10: And it’s just it’s there’s something very satisfying, not, you know, about that, just like from a writer’s perspective and obviously not so much from an editor’s perspective. You usually don’t get your way and get all the things you want in a piece. And so that felt really great.
S1: It’s the second chance.
S3: I’m very grateful that you took the time to speak with us today. Thank you so much. Dahlia Lithwick and Molly Almstead read their piece. The class of Arbi G at Slate dot com slash RPG and listen to the two episodes of Amicus wherever you listen to podcast. Thanks to both of you. Thank you, June. Thank you, Jeanne. Thanks, Molly. We hope you enjoyed the show. If you have, please consider signing up for Slate. Plus, sleepless members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only 35 dollars for the first year. And you can get a free two week trial right now at Slocomb slush working plus thanks to Adrian told me they and of course, to Dahlia Lithwick and Molly Olmsted for talking about the making of their piece. Huge thanks this week and every week to our great producer, Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Isaac Butler, a novelist and journalist. Kevin Win. Until then, get back to work.