Set Decorator Beth Kushnick’s Tools Are Furniture and Accessories

Listen to this episode

S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: But the biggest challenge I face has nothing to do with decorating every single thing. It comes down to both. Can you and your team pivot and have something that was going to be ready three days from now, ready tomorrow? And it is my whole entire goal to always say yes.

S3: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host for monologuing, and I’m your other host, June Thomas. And the other voice we just heard belongs to Beth Kushnick Jun, who is Beth?

Advertisement

S1: So Beth Kushnick is a set decorator and she has a really long list of credits in movies and television. In the movies she worked on films like Reversal of Fortune, Jumanji and Private Parts. And in recent years she’s mostly worked on television shows like Fringe, The Good Wife, The Good Fight, Evil, and most recently, a new show on Epic’s network called Bridge and Tunnel.

S4: I was thinking about this at Slate as that the vast majority of media institutions writers get a byline, but editors don’t. You know, there are always people who work on the things that we love, whose names we don’t know. The sous chef at a fancy restaurant, the crew on a film set. And I’m so curious about that level of expertise, but also that relative place of invisibility.

Advertisement

S1: Yeah, for sure. You know, Beth’s work, if I were, to put it very crudely, is to fool people into thinking that the rooms and the outdoor spaces that we see on TV screens aren’t, in fact, totally faked up spaces inhabited by actors, but real places where real people sleep and eat and work. So ideally, viewers would never think that such a role exists. A set decorator. Why would we need such a thing? Because there’s no such thing as a set. And I think when shows work, when set decorators do the job, we have absolutely that experience and we don’t think of them. One thing that I find interesting about Beth’s career is that while she is clearly extremely good at that sleight of hand, of making it seem so real that it never occurred to viewers that it is indeed a set, she has also started to break that third wall. She now has a podcast called Decorating the Set, which gives a lot of behind the scenes dish. And she’s quite active on social media, helping people understand how they could use the industry secrets to, for example, make their Zoome backgrounds appear more professional, which is a service that I could definitely make use of.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: June, it sounds like you have a particular appreciation for or relationship to some of the shows that Kushnick has been involved with.

S1: Yeah, definitely had a vibe. I’m especially fond of a couple of shows that she’s worked on, The Good Wife, which was about the wife of a prominent politician who does not stand by her man when he is revealed to be a love rat, as we call them, in Britain. And instead she goes back to work as a lawyer after many years as a stay at home mom and politician’s wife. And then the good wife’s spin off the good fight, which for the last couple of seasons has been set in a predominantly black law firm. The good fight in particular, you could call it absurdist. You could also call it utterly bananas. It’s crazy and I love it. But it’s a show basically that involves very rich people. And I can see that it would be a challenge to have their homes and offices not all look alike, and instead to reflect the personalities and the pretensions of each of the characters. And I think she did a really good job of doing that.

Advertisement

S4: Well, I’m really excited to hear more from your conversation with Beth, but before we get to that, I do have two bits of business to announce. The first is that later in this episode, we’ll hear a brief chat that you had with our colleague John Cleese. Dan has just sold his first novel and you wanted to speak to him about the process of writing and then selling a book. I did. And then I want to remind everyone listening about the importance of Slate. Plus, if you enjoy this podcast, and I know that you do as well as the rest of Slate’s journalism, please consider supporting us by joining Slate. Plus, those of you who are already members, we’ll hear a little more from John’s conversation with Beth Kushnick, which is one of the many benefits of membership, like zero ads on Slate podcasts, bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Your Prudence. And of course, you get to feel good about supporting the work we do on this show and elsewhere. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to Slate dot com slash working plus.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: All right, let’s hear Jeunes conversation with Beth Kushnick.

S1: Who are you and what do you do?

S5: My name is Beth Kushnick and for over thirty five years I’ve been a set decorator in the entertainment industry for film and TV.

S1: What does the job of set decorator involve?

S5: So in different places around the world, we have different responsibilities. I’m a born and bred Manhattan. I have mostly always worked in New York and here through our union local. There are all kinds of categories that fall under my heading of set decoration, and they can include everything from hardware to drapery to furnishings to lighting to green space and artwork and everything you can pretty much imagine would fill a space. And the real part of my job to translate to the audience is that I’m another part of being a storyteller. So I fabricate and create for the characters kind of from the bottom up, you know, think about walking onto an empty stage and you need to supply and give the set and give the characters their whole entire lives. So every piece of paper or every key, every switchblade, every piece of hardware and, you know, all the things that describe you when you’re sitting in your home or your office right now, everything you’ve amassed over your lifetime, that’s what I provide literally from scratch.

Advertisement

S1: And you both select and source the items. Right. And sometimes, as you just said, some shows fabricate some of the items to yes, I’m responsible for sourcing everything.

S5: Whether I pull it from a shop, say that I have all of the purchases for a show or I shop at a prop house or at a retail vendor or I have specific items fabricated. Mostly when you’re working as a set decorator in the film industry, you have prep time. So that’s something a little more attainable if you make your plans properly. But as a set decorator for episodic television, you’re doing a new episode every eight to 10 days. So it’s kind of hard to pull off fabricating unless, of course, it’s something very specific where maybe we create art or work with a graphics person and a, you know, come up with a specific script related items.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: We’re going to talk about some of the shows you’ve worked on, like to begin with your newest show, which is on the Epix network. It’s called Bridge and Tunnel, and it tells the story of six new college graduates who find themselves back home in Long Island right after graduating from college. And it’s a period piece set in the 80s, I believe. Right. I’m wondering what special challenges do period pieces present because you can’t just kind of order those up from your local store?

S5: No, not at all. But, you know, even though bridge and tunnel takes place in 1980, it actually takes place even back into the 60s. And, you know, early on in my career, I remember learning this from a very smart production designer who taught me how, you know, you look down the street and everybody has cars, new cars, old cars, you know, borrowed cars, rented cars. So when you you’re doing a really successful period piece, you have to have a breadth and depth of items that, you know, speak to all the different characters and all their different periods. So this was probably one of the most challenging jobs for me because it was my first job back during covid. So not only was I searching for items from the 60s and 70s and 1980s, getting those items, you know, during the pandemic was a challenge.

Advertisement

S1: Yeah. When you can’t just go into a warehouse or into a store and just walk to.

S5: Yeah, I mean, even, you know, how much we source just from thrift shops and, you know, so many things were unavailable to us, but I think we kind of pulled it off.

S1: Yeah. So bridge and tunnel, as I said, is setting up in a particular Mullie neighborhood in Long Island. A lot of what you’re signaling as well as like these are six different families is class, which is a very touchy subject, especially in America. You want to avoid stereotypes. And because these homes are actually really nice properties, but the kids are. The young people are aware that they are seen as slightly less than by Manhattanites, that they’re binti. How do you address all of that with furniture and accessories?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: You know, really, I go back to the script. Of course, we were so lucky. We ended up on literally one or two streets shooting the houses all together. And, you know, some of them have been owned by the owners, you know, for 50 years. Two of them had basements, which, you know, I definitely say were my term I love filled with the mother lode. My team did an incredible job, kind of, you know, we did a lot of begging and borrowing to me, subtle ways to express the characters. And the class level really happened a lot and was informed in the graphics, in the music posters, in the size or the way that we made the rooms feel smaller but not too claustrophobic. Jimmy, one of the main characters, is seen in the first episode, and he’s a tall, strapping young man and he’s seen in his, you know, little single teenager bed. Yeah. And I was surprised actually at how much I felt. I really knew the period, you know, having lived it kind of at the same time. So, you know, I was extremely definitive on what was period appropriate and what wasn’t. You know, every once in a while someone would say, what about this? And I’m like, no, it doesn’t fit the period.

Advertisement

S1: Now, you mentioned the stuff on the wall. And I agree that is really striking. They are kind of adults in kids rooms, you know, at that point in their life where they’re making that change and their rooms because they’ve not lived in them for four years, haven’t changed. And you kind of evoking that, putting things on walls is really a complicated thing when you’re making television because, you know, you can’t just use any old piece of art you can’t use the most, you know, the ones that people know necessarily because there are rights attached. Can you kind of talk us through some of the challenges that you face when you are deciding what to put on walls?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: Sure. I mean, in bridge and tunnel in particular, it happened too late. But I, I realized sort of what I was craving and missing were Peter Max images. Yeah. And, you know, we go through this clearance process and, you know, I go to sleep at night afraid that I’m going to go to Clarance jail as I joke often on the set. But what does that mean? It’s you know, when you make the mistake and there have been mistakes made of recreating something that you could put up that feels like a particular artist. Hmm. That’s a big no no. And in terms of those scenarios now, you can literally be sued. It’s become an interesting turn of events because a lot of artists feel that things like wallpaper patterns or carpet patterns, even, you know, things that are routinely bought in either by design or trade account or just in a retail store. You know, some people do feel that they own the rights to that, to the point where it cannot be used in any other form but, you know, sold retail or sold, you know, to us as designers. So we really have to balance that. I rely very often on prop houses who were willing, especially in the period since, to provide cleared artwork that comes with a legal document. Whether the network that you’re working with is willing to take that document is another story. It has given my job as a set decorator, a whole other kind of way to think way to process it. In the good old days before this was an issue, we, you know, run and gun and take something out of the trash and put it up on the wall. You know, we would dumpster dive and kind of get whatever we wanted, wherever we wanted. But this is actually turned into a department. Interestingly enough, I think sometimes if someone has an aspiration of being, you know, an attorney and wants to work in the film business, this might be, you know, a combo of things that they like to do.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Television and movies are famously collaborative when you are collaborating, especially in a show like this where these are new characters and there’s just so much work to kind of decide who these people are that you’re going to evoke. Who do you talk to? Who do you work with to make those kinds of decisions?

S5: Well, always the script of any show informs my initial design and concept. And then, of course, I’m working with the director. In the case of bridge and Tunnel, it was Ed Burns for all the episodes. In the case of other TV shows, you know, we have a new director because we’re always prepping and shooting at the same time. When you think about it really as a set decorator, I’m the one who has the most interaction with every department. And I could go through a number of departments and explain why. I, of course, interact with the director of photography. I am the one who provides the what’s called in the film business, the practicals, which are the different chandeliers and lamps and standing lamps and sconces. And I kind of direct and drive the light or how the director of photography will light the set.

S1: So the lights that we see on the set, you know, the bedroom lights in the in the kid’s bedroom and bridge and tunnel or, you know, the desk lamps in the good fight. Are those actually generating light that’s used to shoot?

S5: Oh, yes. What happens is each director of photography decides, depending on is this a night shot? It’s the sun shot. What the action is, where the actors are going to be, how the light needs to hit them, what their skin tone is, what their age might be. You know, how you shoot. Each character is all informed by practicals. And very often when a director and a DP come to review as I open a set for them, I engage with each one of them and they might say to me, you know, I love that lamp, but in that corner I’m not going to see it. And I, you know, give a suggestion and we move things around and we all kind of engage both their departments, the grip and electric departments I’m involved with, because what I provide them with on set or at a location is kind of what they have to contend with the shooters for the day. So, you know, I’m aware of what kind of flooring they like to push the dollar over. And I’m aware of where they might have cables in a corner and they need me to provide something to hide those cables. So I’m dealing with them. I am dealing with the sound person because certain things make noise on a set. I deal with the costume designer because very often we’re having to be on the same page in terms of, you know, I’m always showing a costume designer what tones we’re using, what colors. Sometimes it works if we’re exactly on the same page with that, sometimes we want to contrast that. Then in a more technical aspect, I work with the Teamster drivers who pick up all my selected items and drive them to the set and drive me from one set to the next. It’s kind of my mobile office, my car. I work with the accountants because certainly getting along with the accountant and being on budget is paramount. And I take that very, very, very seriously. And then, of course, I have someone from my department and on set dresser who maintains my vision while we’re shooting, because, you know, especially in covid, I don’t crossover, but I am always advancing the company with my team. So I go into a location or a set to dress a few days before I open the set. And I always say to the next one, and they come in shooters and they do what they’re doing. And then we come back, restore and clean up and start the next one. So, yeah, you know, it takes a village. It’s a lot of people in my department. I usually have the biggest department on set. Oh, interesting.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: We’ll be back with more of John’s conversation with Beth Kushnick after this. Next week on Working, I’m talking to the illustrator and writer, Austin Cleon. He’s someone who I turn to when I need creative advice. And I’m wondering, who do you look to for creative advice?

S6: Drop us a line at working at Slate Dotcom or call three zero four nine three three work and tell me maybe it’s a book, a specific author who tweets a lot. Who is your go to to get you inspired and thinking about creativity? OK, let’s rejoin June’s conversation with Beth Kushnick.

S1: We just talked about endorsements in bridge and tunnel, you have a lot of outdoor sets because it’s summer and these are young people who have amazing bodies, maybe a little bit 21st century bodies, in my view, as somebody who also was around in the 80s. But, you know, I was really struck by the outdoor furniture just because honestly, I don’t think you really see that kind of scene much in TV, maybe because shows generally don’t actually shoot outdoors for whatever reason. Was it especially tricky to find 80s style like summer outdoor furniture?

S5: Well, Jane, I don’t know if you read my post on Instagram last night, but it is exactly that. It was this was the set decorating challenge. Not only did I need multiple pieces and sets because in the 80s and 70s we’re talking sets of outdoor furniture, but I needed to procure them during covid. Right. We did some traveling in terms of going far out to have things picked up and dealt with some people through eBay. It’s surprising in a way that there were certain things like, say, the umbrellas, that the reproductions that are out there and available looks so good that we got away with that, you know, those big palm tree prints and colorful things. You know, we painted some pieces that we found and we had some quick custom cushions made. We did look out at a prop house or two. But, you know, I was struck in the first episode even of how much they stood out. Yeah. We also did a lot of Green’s work. You know, we. What does that mean? That means that we actually went into these practical locations to the exteriors and we planted plants and trim trees and we hung string lights.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And, you know, and these those were those were not sets. Right? Those were I mean, there were sets, but they weren’t fake homes. They were real people’s homes.

S5: They were real people’s homes. Yes. And we painted and wallpapered a few a few of the bedrooms were built on a stage. The bar bathroom that the show opens with was built on the stage. But again, you know, covid really informed how this job happened and it was much healthier and safer for all of us to be outside.

S1: Were there any sort of items or sets in bridge and tunnel that you were particularly proud of, just those things that just really it was a trial and you got them and you just felt so triumphant, even if, you know, the nature of it is that they don’t necessarily stand out and they should actually all just kind of blend in and just seem right.

S5: I’d say that a trip to a vendor that I had never been to a store on Long Island helped me come up with some incredible wallpaper that really informed everything else. It’s amazing how there are some classics like, you know, a daybed in one of the girls bedrooms. There are things that really when I kind of set my mind to like, you know, again, this will inform this character that it all started to come together. And we really worked on developing myself with the production designer, a different palette for each character. Oh, interesting. And that, I think, is kind of a subliminal thing that stands out that you’re not sure of what it is, but it works. You know, I lucked into some, you know, friends of friends who are cleaning out their grandmother’s home. I did a little trick that I love more than anything, even for myself, which is I use different sets of linens and mix them together. And, you know, that kind of pattern on pattern is something that was true of that time period, you know, pattern in the drapes, you know, big kind of popi patterns.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: OK, let’s move away from bridge and tunnel to one of might well, two of my favorite shows that I know you have been working on since the very beginning, The Good Wife and the Good Fight, the show that’s currently on CBS, all access. Now, those shows take place in the world of the legal profession in Chicago. And The Chicago Sun-Times looks an awful lot like New York, but in Chicago and there are an awful lot of offices to decorate. It’s not exclusively in law firms, but there is a lot of law office. There are a lot of things happen in law offices. How do you indicate like this is Diane’s office, this is Loukas office. This is Liz’s office. In other words, how do you show the personality of the person who works in the office when basically they’re all offices in the same firm?

S5: Well, in the same way you think about telling a character’s back story. And there are pieces that become iconic to that character. As a matter of fact, back on The Good Wife, we created the first home decor license and TV history by collaborating with Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams. And we had a line of furniture that was, you know, the good wife, the good fight home decor line. And, you know, it was get the look of the good wife, forget the look of the good fight. But it’s really now become my way of engaging with fans. People started sending me pictures of their coffee tables. And, you know, that’s what even led me to doing my own podcast decorating the set.

S1: Yeah, well, the good fight specifically is not only set in a law firm, but, you know, we often also do see their homes. And again, they’re all pretty well off people. What kind of tricks do you use to distinguish between really, really, really rich people, really rich people and merely rich people? Or is that even in your thinking?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: No, it actually is in the thinking because the first kind of crafting of each character’s back story includes what? Their socio economic classes. That is, you know, like probably in the top five questions that I posed to myself for that I try to glean from the script, you know, who is that actor? What did they look like their age? What age are we playing them as? What is this family’s socioeconomic background? Are they. Sentimental, are they living with things from their past, you know, that they’ve handed down through generations, you know, then they’re certainly like, for instance, the movie I did, Reversal of Fortune, which, you know, the class in Sunny von Bulow story, just by virtue of who those people are. I mean, that informs a level of wealth that you see in absolutely everything from the products that are in the bathroom or on the bedside table to the Christmas decor. You know, every single thing has to be presented on really aspirational level.

S1: What is the biggest challenge you face in getting your job done and doing your job?

S5: Well, the biggest challenge I face has nothing to do with decorating. It’s all about organizing. It’s about managing crew. But what it really comes down to is, you know, being prepared for everything you think is going to happen, you know, could blow up in a minute’s time and being able to pivot whether, you know, an actor is sick or whether somebody misses an airplane or whether, you know, rain or snow is coming and the schedule has to change. Weather scripts are being rewritten at the last minute. Every single thing comes down to. You know, Beth, can you and your team pivot and have something that was going to be ready three days from now, ready tomorrow, and it is my whole entire goal to always say yes, even though.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: How do you do that, though? By just having by working ahead or just by having a lot of resources that you can just go postal from both?

S5: You know, we might work late. We tend to work a lot of weekends, you know, the way in which people may view this as a glamorous job. I can seriously tell you after all these years, it is so not a glamorous job. You know, it’s about really trying to adjust your mind. You know, maybe I was going to pick up items from to prop houses. Now I’m going to do it all at once. At one of them, maybe I had in mind something that I have to recalibrate. And, you know, it’s more about the managing of the the money, the crew, the time, you know, I mean, I think that most people can pick out. Pretty sofa, you know? Yeah, you know, most stories in the last 10 years have done that for their shoppers. You know, everything is merchandised. So you can walk in a store and say, I’ll take that set or, you know, I want that color and everything that comes in that color. So it’s just really a mindset and a way to keep everybody moving. I constantly say one foot in front of another. That’s how we got to do it. So we’ve got a lot of challenges. And certainly in New York, we’ve had a lot of challenges. I am fascinated in a way by the covid response and all my fellow crew members and the studios and how everyone is implementing what we have to do, you know, being tested three times a week and all of the protocols.

S1: Yeah. So that would include you who, as you’ve said, you basically go and set things up and then you move on to the next one, even if you’re there before most people are there, you’re also involved in that protocol.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: The reason why is because I considered the zone A because I interact with the director and I interact, you know, the director interacts with the actors. And, you know, it’s something that we have to adjust. You know, it’s not in our DNA as filmmakers and crew people were so connected and we’re so close and everybody’s talking, you know, an inch away from each other. And, you know, my crew moves everything and, you know, it takes two people to move a sofa. So it’s brought us all to our knees, just like many other places in many other industries.

S1: Beth, thank you so much for being here today. I learned a lot was really interesting. Thank you, John.

S5: My pleasure. Thank you.

S4: June, one of the things that Beth said that I really found so striking is that her task is fundamentally to be a storyteller.

S1: Elizabeth, I know and I have to say that has become such a terrible cliche. The quickest way to get drunk would be to take a shot. At the time, someone described themselves as a storyteller. But in best case, I think is absolutely true, like the work of a set decorator. It’s not shopping for core sofas or like swell wall art. It’s about finding things that tell viewers who these people are in a way that supports what they or others are saying in the script. Like you see a particular piece of art or a style of headboard in someone’s bedroom, and you immediately get a very visceral sense of who that person is.

S4: And I think that’s right. Like in a practical, even personal way, you know, the things that we hang up on our walls, the kinds of dishes that we eat off of, they do tell a story about us in reality. So, of course, that makes sense that there’ll be an aspect of the storytelling that we see on screen.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, totally. And I’m so aware of projecting how I want to be seen by the things I put in my apartment, like all those books. I mean, it’s just purely me trying to establish that I’m an intellectual, you know, or all those CDs trying to show off my exquisite musical tastes, even though actually I don’t even have anything I can play them on. So what they’re really revealing is that I’m a total poser. So like it’s both a story that we’re all aware of telling about ourselves and one that we’re used to using when we’re reading other people’s apartments. And and so, yeah, I think I think it’s something that we do automatically.

S4: So I personally have never seen the good wife or the good fight, and so I’m curious to know whether these are shows that are known for a sense of visual storytelling, the way that we think of those sets from Mad Men as being like utterly perfect, both for the period, but also communicating something about the imaginary people who are meant to inhabit them. Like, is that part of what people say about those shows?

S1: No, I think it’s actually more subtle than that, like Mad Men in particular. I mean, like it’s all about drawing attention to the sets and how different things are and yet how there’s still so the same. It’s not as obvious as that. But most of the characters, as I mentioned, are attorneys. Most of them are successful attorneys. So it’s a very high end story, you know, lots of opulence and luxury. So it’s really interesting and a challenge, I think, to show how very successful people, very rich people reveal their personalities in subtle and maybe unsubtle ways. So just the way that when you’re in an office and everybody has exactly the same setup, what do people do to show that they’re not quite like the person next to them? What do they have on their desk? And, you know, a show with a lot of black characters who are doing very well financially and successfully. That’s interesting how, you know, what do you how do you do that without making it seem that’s that’s not right. And then he also has a lot of recurring characters who they need to establish or reestablish quite quickly. So there’s a lot going on, a lot of signaling. And there’s another thing, too, I think I kind of joked about this in the in the interview, but it’s a show that is filmed in New York, but it’s set in Chicago. So that’s a whole other level of disguise that the set decorating has to accomplish.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: I would say pretty well, you know, as someone who truly loves shopping, I got a bit of a thrill hearing Beth talk about the hunt, for example, the perfect suite of outdoor furniture from the 1980s. It’s like it’s such a specific goal. It’s such a tall order. And it must be kind of a thrill for her to tackle that mission.

S1: God, I know it really is a hunt. As I’ve mentioned on this show before, I used to make a podcast that took viewers behind the scenes of the Americans. And I was always really impressed by the lengths that the set decorators had to go to to find items that were both period and also evoked kind of a Russian vibe so we could believe that we were in either Russia or a Russian embassy or consulate. That was a really difficult task. But finding 1980s sun loungers in the middle of a pandemic, that might be even harder.

S4: I have to say that I felt like kind of moved hearing Beth talk about work under the conditions of covid, where even something as simple to use her example as moving a sofa around requires, you know, the hands of a colleague. And this virus has just so transformed every aspect of our lives and we don’t really know what lies ahead. So I think we just kind of feel wistful about the most unremarkable things from the past. You know, she’s just talking about moving a sofa, but also she’s talking about working with people who she likes to make something that she cares about and believes in.

S1: Yeah, you know, it’s almost hard to believe that we’re getting so many new shows right now, given how almost impossible it is for people to get together in numbers. You know, and under normal circumstances, there are a lot of people stuffed in a tiny space on a TV set. So between, you know, frequent testing, social distancing protocols and all the difficulties of just acquiring the items that we were just talking about, it’s a miracle that this work is getting done. But I think it is, as you say, a testament to how much people love working together and meeting these challenges because it is happening and it’s happening really beautifully.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: This reminds me how much I miss working with you and Isaac and our producer Cameron being in those lovely Slate studios, you know, running into other writers and editors who I know in the office, like I miss all that stuff.

S1: Yeah, I’m constitutionally a hermit, so, like, I don’t think that I do. But when you mentioned that, you know, I, I do love going to the office and either, you know, running into people unexpectedly because, oh, I didn’t know my mom was going to be here today or people that you fully expect to meet, like, you know, Cameron, who’s two chairs down from me and like complimenting their bag because Romanos has the nicest bags or just gossiping or just getting to see people in the flesh. You know, it’s really hard to judge people on who is much more ruthless in person.

S4: I’m going to have to apply some of Beth’s set dressing techniques for my own background so that I can avoid your ire.

S1: Speaking of missing the office, earlier this week, one of our Slate colleagues, Dan Coats, had an amazing bit of news that I think struck us all as a total surprise that he had sold his first novel in a preempt, which until I spoke with Dan, I had no idea what that meant. So I just grabbed him for five minutes and we recorded a conversation about his process of writing a book in his copious spare time, which I don’t know how he has even a second to turn around and also to how he went about selling it. And so let’s hear my conversation with Dan Kois.

S7: Hello, Dan. Hello, I’m so excited to finally have been proven to have been working.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: All right. So this was the write up in publisher’s lunch. I will. Excerpt from it, Slate staff writer Dan Cleese’s vintage contemporary’s great, great title, by the way, about three very different women whose lives intersect in the dynamic, grungy New York of the early 90s and early and middle Xeros pitched in the spirit of Laurie Colwin and the Great Believer’s to Sarah Steinert Harper in a preempt by Ali Hanna Habib at the Gernert Company. So first of all, just some real specific details. Can you explain something about the language of that? What is a preempt?

S7: Yeah, it means that a certain kind of offer was made by the editor who bought my novel. My agent Eliab set the book out to, you know, a typical sort of wide submission list, maybe 15 editors or something at different publishing houses. And obviously the goal of that is twofold. It’s you novels are are tricky and personal. And so you want to get send it to as many people as you mean you’re sort of just, you know, shooting a shotgun and hoping that a couple of the pellets at people who turn out to really love it. In my case, what happened was a little unusual in my experience, which is that one editor, Sarah at Harper, we sent it out on a Friday and she just happened to read it over the weekend. She had time and she started reading it and she got into it and she really liked it. And by a couple of days after the weekend, she had just decided, I’m going to try and jump the gun and just try and get this book before other people get in on it. So she made an offer and it was a good offer that was like, you know, what amount of money that I was like, great. I would love to be paid that much for writing a novel. And, you know, I didn’t know if other people were going to come to it, but I talked to her and I really liked her and she had a good plan for publishing it. And I was like, why put myself through all the stress? Someone wants to pay me to publish this thing I’ve been working out for six years. Take the money and run, buddy. So I did. So that sort of preempt is she preempted everyone else?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So you just said something else that is mind blowing. Six years. Six years. So you’ve already written this book. When were you doing it? Because not only do you have a full time writing and editing job, you’re a very active parent and husband. That sounds weird, but you know what I mean. And you you’ve also written other books. So during that time, not to mention all the tweets, all the tweets. Well, I was trying to ignore those, but thanks. So when did you write this novel?

S7: I started this novel basically the week I turned forty six years ago because I was so angry at myself that I had spent a shit load of money and my 20s on an MFA in fiction and yet had never written a novel. In fact, it basically written zero fiction since the day I finished my MFA thesis. But yet that was like a dream that I always had. And I had this sort of set of stories I was interested in exploring, but I didn’t know what they were. But so I just basically wrote, you know, two or three nights a week between when the kids went to bed and when I couldn’t stay up anymore. And I did it. And basically, instead of watching TV, like I spent the last six years not watching any of the great TV shows that have been launched in the last six years and going to slate culture meetings and just being a complete idiot about television, including a period when I was Slate’s culture editor and I would just like try to get 500 words down on nights when I felt like I had something in me and I did that for four or five years. And then this past summer, I spent a lot of time doing a project that the novelist Jami Attenberg runs called 1000 Words of Summer, which is a one month challenge. It’s like a sort of a mini nano, IMO. It’s a one month challenge which are basically declaring I will write 1000 words every day, which is really quite a few words, really. But when you actually sit down trying to do it, we just pledging that you’re going to do it and you’re making yourself publicly accountable. And I did that. And that kick started the book. And then I finished a draft later in the summer.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So the editor who bought it will have another round of edits, right, you’re not done, done.

S7: I’m not done. Done. So I finished the draft this summer and I sent it out to a bunch of reader friends. Like many writers, I sort of have an assemblage of close friends who are also writers, who are good readers, who I have read their books and they read mine. And I got very good notes and feedback from them. But then, yes, this basically fourth draft that we submitted is now in the process of being edited by my editor. She’s going to send me back, I think a big edit memo, big letter probably was in line notes in a month or a month and a half and that I’ll have a whole revision to do there. And there might be one round after that. Mm hmm. You know, in maybe November, December, my agent Iliya said, you know, I I think that this is in good shape. There are still some things I think that you should you could do to it to make it better. And at that point, I basically said, no, I’m sorry. You’re right, I’m sure. But I have been doing this for almost six years and I can’t do any more work on this unless I know someone is going to publish it. And Intel and I want the next round of edits I do to be at the behest of someone who is invested in the book who like is is doing them because she wants this book to sell the same way that I want to out in the world. And and so I wanted the editor I wanted an editor to buy the book and then give me her notes. Those are the ones I want to do next. I was very lucky, I think, in that that happened. It worked out for plenty of writers. It doesn’t work out for plenty of times for me with past ideas or past book notions. It hasn’t worked out, but this time it did.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Amazing. Thank you, Dan. Sure. We’ll be talking again when the book comes out.

S7: Oh, believe me, I’ll be right up this podcast.

S8: But to try a little time on the show. I believe that. So thank you very much. Thanks, Jane.

S3: June, it was, first of all, just so lovely to hear Dan’s exuberant voice and has happy news, but really just a great conversation in the nuts and bolts of what it’s like to write a book and to sell a book.

S9: I know. And now I’ve got to give up television, but I can’t. But I mean, what an inspiration.

S3: Yes, we hope you’ve enjoyed this show. And if you have, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and you’ll never miss an episode. I’m going to give you one final slate. Plus, pitch. Our members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast and bonus episodes of their favorite shows. And of course, you’ll be supporting the work that we do on working. One dollar for the first month, one dollar to learn more, you just go to sleep. Dotcom’s less working.

S9: Plus, thank you to Beth Kushnick and to our amazing producer, Cameron Druss. We’ll be back next week with Remans conversation with the artist and writer Austin Cleon. Until then, get back to work.

S1: Hello, sleepless listeners, thank you so much for your support. We can’t do any of this without you. Just for you, I asked Beth Kushnick a couple of extra questions. So for your eyes only. Is there a show or a movie that you think just knocked it out of the park with a set decoration, that you just think that they did a really great job?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: I think really knowing how hard it is to do period shows, I, you know, tip my hat to any set decorator doing a period show because sometimes they’re shot on location completely, you know, so it’s not in your backyard. It’s not where you have your access to your vendors that you’re used to. You know, you you also have to be, as a set decorator, a real kind of diplomat and, you know, come into a town and work that town, work those people. I shot the New Hampshire unit of Jumanji, the original Jumanji, and we shot in Keene, New Hampshire, for two different units. And, you know, of course, again, things have changed so much. You know, I’ve been in Savannah, Georgia, shooting a TV show with, you know, people who live in the town offering me their furniture that was registered with the National Trust in those days, you know, when when you’re working totally out of your element and there are incredible set decorators who, you know, this is their life’s work to go on location, you know, whenever they’re called without, you know, our usual backup support. Right. I think those are the jobs that you just marvel at because, you know, pulling off what you do every day with your backup is one thing, but pulling it off in a in a, you know, different place, which, again, is not happening. Yeah, that much of it. But, you know, there’s something really incredible about that I’d never thought of.

S1: I’d never thought that when you say go off to Eastern Europe to make a movie, you can’t just pop into the proposed to pick something up. You got to she’s got to make it work. Right.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: And you’ve got to make you know, years ago I did a one of the first HBO series called Vietnam War Story, and we shot in Savannah, Georgia. And we literally flooded a field there. And I planted plastic rice sprouts with the local unemployment labor force to make rice paddies. Wow. So I don’t know the unexpected and the unusual connections to each experience sometimes is a set decorator. You’re looking for something that you cannot find to save your life. I did a commercial where we needed for Amnesty International, where we needed, you know, three hundred candles. I mean, OK, candles. Yeah. You know, pillar candles, white pillar candles. That can’t be that hard. Yeah. There was a candle shortage in the entire universe during the time we were shooting that commercial and the day that we wrapped for the next, I don’t know, three or four months. Every place I looked, there were candles, white pillar candles to be had. So, you know, you got to take that in stride and just deal with it.

S9: Thanks again, sleepless members, we appreciate you.

S10: So.