How to Interview Celebrities, With Taffy Brodesser-Akner
S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: If you’re dealing with a very famous person, one of the problems you encounter is that the reason the person is worthy of being profiled is not necessarily because they aren’t good at talking about what they do.
S3: And that’s where the writer comes in. It’s my job to make my story get.
S4: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host. June Thomas. And I’m your other host. Isaac Butler. Isaac. Today, we’ll be hearing your fantastic interview with writer TAFE producer Agner, whose voice we just heard. But before we get to TAFE, how are you doing this week?
S5: June. I am happy to report that this morning I woke up an hour early with an anxiety dream about not meeting my book Deadline. So that’s how I am. That’s the bad news. But the good news of that happening, because I remember this from the world only spins forward is as you close in on the end, your subconscious is working harder and harder on the creative task at hand. So I take that as just a sign that, like, you know, the nine tenths of the brain that Douglas Adams said were filled with rooms of penguins are instead of being filled with penguins, filled with observations and ideas for the book about the method. That’s what I’m hoping that dream actually entails. I’m just trying to look on the bright side today.
S1: You spoke today with one of the most amazing profile writers in America. And I have to say one of the many, many ways that the pandemic has really messed with us has been the way that glossy magazines have had to kind of reflect the seriousness of our destabilised times. And they seem to have moved away from the overtly and explicitly frivolous. The last big celebrity profile that I can remember people talking about was the New York Times magazine’s Val Kilmer piece, which was indeed written by Taffy. Since those profiles are often pegged to movie releases or TV premieres, that kind of makes sense. Still miss them. Do you are you a profile fan?
S5: I can be, absolutely. And you’re right. The profile now has often been. Well, I spoke via phone or Zoome with this famous person about how they are never leaving their apartment and whether they still love their spouse or not because they have a new movie that’s instead going to Netflix when it was supposed to go in theaters. That’s like the celebrity profile now. But I think the celebrity profile is a completely legitimate sub genre of non-fiction. And like any other, one of those subgenres can have results that are good or bad and results that are entertaining or boring or or like anything else. I have written two celebrity profiles myself. One was of Nathan Lane and one was of Venus Williams. And I’m fairly proud of them. But there’s a way in which, because profiles are an accessible and popular piece of writing, that we’re immediately suspicious of them and they get underestimated in a way that I think gives really great writers of them a drive to reinvent them. And Taffy Burdette’s or actor is absolutely one of the people who has done that over the course of her career. I did not do that my two pieces, but she she definitely has. And that’s why I was really excited to speak with her.
S1: So I have read several of her pieces and love them, but there is more I’m sure to know. Tell me about this week’s guest.
S5: Yes, absolutely. So Taffy Burdette’s, Destler actor, is a journalist and novelist and now screenwriter. She’s probably best known for these incredible celebrity profiles. She’s written first at GQ and now for The New York Times Magazine. Her most famous one is her profile of Gwyneth Paltrow, which I hope will have a link to somewhere. And, you know, if you want to take a break and just read that first, it’s it’s incredible. But please come back because we need those ad dollars. But her other subjects have included Tom Hanks, Bradley Cooper, and I think her most recent one was this profile of Val Kilmer, which we actually talk about in the episode itself. She’s also the author of Fleishman Is In Trouble, a wonderful novel that I think was a bit of a sensation when it first came out. I think we can call that right. And it was on the bestseller list. It was pretty much a universally critically beloved. It was long listed for the National Book Award, and it actually just came out in paperback.
S1: Well, as a journalism nerd and someone who really enjoyed Fleischman is in trouble. I’m very excited to hear this week’s interview. Let’s get to it.
S6: When someone asks you what do you do? What do you say?
S2: I just say I’m a writer and a lot of crazy things happen after that. People assume that I am like a journal or that I’m sure they always think I’m trying to write something. But I guess maybe when I say I’m a writer, I’m not specific enough.
S6: But that’s what I am. Yes. Yeah. I mean, I think so. But, you know, to to get more specific. Obviously, you’re a staff writer at The New York Times. You’re a novelist. Your first novel, Fleischman is in Trouble, is newly available in paperback. And you’ll soon. Or are you currently writing for television because it’s being adapted for TV series?
S2: I am in the middle of it. I’m in the middle of my television show. Adaptation of Fleischman is in Trouble.
S6: Amazing. So do you think of that as all one process, as all one kind of artistic practice, or is it, you know, lots of little versions of this thing we call writing?
S2: No, I think it’s all the same. I think it feels exactly like times in my career, especially when I was a freelancer, when I was writing five different stories at a time, although the screenwriting part, which I have not yet proven successful at. So I say this with humility, feels comical in terms of its requirements that like the the outsized amount of money you make for this document that has so few words on it and that you didn’t have to, like, clear with anyone or fact check or face people with or worry that you weren’t getting things wrong.
S7: And there are no there are no paragraphs are the hard part. Right. But isn’t screenwriting actually the thing you studied?
S2: I studied and I I left school and I didn’t have immediate success at it. I had, like, tepid interest. And I figured, like, I always wanted to be someone who didn’t waste time and who read the tea leaves. Sounds like, oh, it must be bad at this as opposed to everything else, which is, oh, I’m not immediately great at this, but I left immediately and I got a job at a soap opera magazine and I just fell into journalism and I stayed in journalism and I and I was good at it, meaning I gave it enough time and had enough mentorship to be good at it, whereas I didn’t really have that in film school. I had dark ideas, but people kept telling me to write romantic comedies and I try like that. That’s the thing. I didn’t stay the course of the thing I wanted to do. That’s the thing I learned over the years that I tried to do the thing that people thought I would be good at because I was a champion advice taker. Like I was so good at taking advice to the point where half the times when I’m mentoring somebody or when someone just reaches out to ask a question and says, I remember writing a short story in college, and I was told it wasn’t good. And now, 15 years later, I want to write something, but I don’t feel the confidence to I tell him that story, which is that like some of us, the thing that makes us good at writing also makes us good at listening and taking people’s advice and assuming that people know what they’re talking about. When most of the people don’t know anything, they are just riffing. They are just talking. Because you asked a question and I feel like they don’t understand what they hold in their hands when they do that with people who are like us. Like there was something about me that was a perfectionist in that I just wanted to be immediately perfect. I did not yet know that a person’s value is withstanding criticism and absorbing it and metabolizing it into something better than what you started with.
S6: And now I think that is that’s like being a prodigy, not the thing we call being a prodigy, essentially, because I do think that probably many of our listeners first encountered your writing in the form of the profiles that you write. Your most recent one is Val Kilmer. But of course, you’ve written about Tom Hanks and Melissa McCarthy, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Pattinson and so many others. And, you know, it’s interesting to talk to you about the process of writing this, because the process of how you write it is so far grounded in the writing itself, right over the.
S7: Well, I hope that students do down. You just. Just read some selected excerpts or you explain your process. No. Good. That sounds like a great use of time.
S6: I am, though, interested about the the development of that kind of metanarrative as a technique right within the writing of them themselves. Like, how did you happen upon that and how have you refined that device over the years?
S7: You know, I don’t.
S2: I think, first of all, it’s like a thing that I’m known for and it’s mostly called a good thing. But in my mind, I categorize it as a bad thing. I categorize it as the thing where when I haven’t been able to make a person as forthcoming as I need them to be or when I do not yet feel like my might. The thing that happened within the story is enough to explain to a reader what the story was like or what the challenges of the story were or what this person is actually talking about. My weakness is then to tell the story of the story. But I think it was forged as a thing I do when I was sent in 2014 to Nicki Minaj, who fell asleep while we were talking. And it’s like a good, freelancer’s story because I knew that GQ, a men’s magazine, had a very male ego and that if she didn’t give us anything, they were going to kill the story. And I was not on my watch. And then and also, this is often a problem with people when you’re when you’re writing about a person. One of the problems you encounter is that the reason the person is worthy of being profiled is not necessarily because they are good at talking about what they do. And that’s where the writer comes in. And it’s not like I realized it’s not her job to make my story good. It’s it’s my job to make my story good. And so I wrote a story about, you know, what I what I would have asked her if she’d been awake and what I think she would have said. And and also the other reason for that device is because I grew up reading celebrity profiles and I hated most of them. And the ones I didn’t hate all had the same quality, which was that the writer was not in bed with the subject, meaning it’s very easy to become so dazzled by a celebrity that by the time you write it, it’s me and the subject. Doing something for your benefit, the reader like this is what it’s like to be friends with this person. But that’s not what a profile should be, because I’m not friends with that person. And we didn’t have something that emulated friendship. We had a weird, short, intense relationship that we both knew the length of this, the extent of and the stakes of. And I am the reader in those situations. And I want the reader to know that I know what my job is. My job is to go there and to tell you what it would have been like if you were there. And anything beyond that is staff thuggery and star fucker. He is the like is the thing that I am afraid of in those stories.
S6: So when you’re profiling, maybe it changes profile, a profile, but when you’re profiling someone, are you pitching your editor? And then The Times is pitching their team as their team, pitching the Times and the Times is assigning you like like how does this stuff get worked out?
S2: I can’t remember a time that somebody came to me and said, you should write about this person simply because that doesn’t happen with very famous people. No publicist comes to you and is like Tom Hanks could really is a good story right now. Like, right. Tom Hanks is going to get a good story and something does happen where his people reach out to people at the Times or people at GQ or do the people GQ know it’s coming? And so they fight off the Esquire people. It all happens without you. And then half the time they bring it to you when it’s obvious they bring it to you. They bring you Tom Hanks, who has a big movie coming out. They bring you Josh Brolin, who has a good big movie come out. They bring you Ethan Hawke. They do not bring you Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, you might have to over a series of years, make a case for Gwyneth Paltrow that keeps getting treated like you were making a joke at first and then.
S6: Right. You were very public about your desire.
S2: You manifested that I would go to events and on panels, I would say I would get I would be in meetings with editors who would say, hey, do you want to come work here? And I would say, no, thank you. However, if you have a Gwyneth Paltrow profile, I will violate whatever contract I am on to do it. But the way it actually came up was that her. She had a crisis PR group, like the same people who handled Obama’s campaign, came to his own Robert Draper, the like a political writer at the Times. And they were like, you know, this is an interesting story. Robert Draper brought it to Jake, our editor in chief. And because lobbying works, Jake said, I think it’s in TAFE contract. That is, there is a Klinefelter’s story. He gets it.
S7: Was that actually in your go? No, no, no. He knew. He knew right now. He knew that I am a highly emotionless bill. I am.
S2: I will drown them with my tears is more like a lie. And they let me do it. And I and I was like depressed for a while afterwards because now what.
S7: Right. Right. Yeah. Of course. You you you have got. That was my wife. Well, that was your white whale. Ahab is lucky enough that he dies when he finds his white whale. Oh. Now I was worried we survived it.
S6: I mean, is that a weird thing where it’s like, you know, I know like after you close a show that you’ve directed, you get depressed for a couple weeks or whatever.
S2: Oh, my God, it’s totally a thing. Like, first of all, I woke up that morning and was surprised. I didn’t like I hadn’t disintegrated. Now that my life’s work had clearly been met, then that’s the reason I was bored, was fulfilled. It’s been hard. Except that things immediately changed for me right after the book came out, which was another year. And I was interviewed a lot. And I began to really rethink the question of whether or not you can get to know somebody by doing a profile. And that’s the kind of thing I’m obsessed with now. So it’s reinvigorated me.
S6: So how do you prepare for interviews? How do you do you craft the questions in advance? You just have like a list of things you want to talk about, like what is the prep process like before you even meet with the person?
S2: I read everything. I watch everything. And if you’re dealing with a very famous person, a great thing is that they already have so much press. So the thing that, you know, going in is how the press has treated them. And and here is my overwhelming essential theory of profiles, the way a person is thought of versus the way they believe they actually are. It creates trauma in them. And if you could figure out the sentence of like, what is the thing that the that is thought of me versus who actually am I and what is my behavior in the world? You see, a lot of like someone is call bad or not smart and then you see them do Shakespeare. Like, that’s that’s a good story. Or like, for example, Ethan Hawke, who is known to take himself so seriously to talk to him about what how bad has defined his career and to actually show him how it’s defined his career, to have to ignore the idea that you were like a pretty big way that everyone counted out. If you’re traumatized enough, it creates the. Next chapter of your career, which is trying to prove to yourself that the thing that people saw on you is not really who you are. It’s really crazy.
S6: And so, in a way, is it like, you know, you set up that profile as kind of like the inflection point of that? Right. It’s because it’s about that subject.
S2: There’s a great celebrity profile is always you think of this about a person, but actually this.
S8: We’ll be back with more of Isaac, but this conversation with Taffy Broadus, Atnah, in a moment.
S5: 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. If and when we can, we’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests.
S1: Welcome back to working. I’m June Thomas. Now let’s get back to Isaac’s conversation with Tuffy Row, Destler Agner.
S6: So as you’ve gotten more prominent, as you’ve made a name for yourself as a profile writer, do your subjects kind of know in advance that that’s what’s going to happen in the profiles? There’s sort of an extra layer of like you have been reading my work, but I’ve been reading yours. Is there that sort of extra level of we know what this dance is to the whole thing?
S2: No, no. But there are very few people who ever said to me that they knew what who I was or what I had written, and that that only changed so far after the publication of the book. Oh, interesting. Tom Hanks wanted to talk a little bit about my book, but that’s a really good way of using up time and in an interview. Right. Yeah.
S7: So, so, so. So I’m always aware of that.
S2: But nobody I think they don’t read celebrity profiles. Right. Right. Like, I think that they they have so much contempt for the form and they have been treated so badly. And also, even when it goes well, even if they like my profile, it’s nobody ever feels like a story about them has been told to completion. Right. So what do you say we all believe were more complicated? We all. And we. And we are. And we are. And also I only have a few thousand words like. And also, I’m I’m obsessed with storytelling. So there are parts of it where I sometimes worry I become too simplistic in the name of like a good three act structure to the thing.
S6: Right. Right. And structure. I know it’s something that you care a lot about and it’s all about. So I want to talk about this because, you know, at the end of spending time interviewing us, I mean, I’ve written a couple of celebrity profiles or I’ve ever written that many of them I’ve written to. But, you know, when you’re when you’re following a story about something, you always end up with this just enormous mountain of material and then you have to both whittle it down and shape it. And so, you know, I was thinking about. The way that you structure your pieces. And in particular, I was looking at the Val Kilmer one and, you know, there’s this great thing you do where you mentioned that his two great loves are Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy. And you say it in like the 10th paragraph and then you’re already living there.
S6: Thirty two paragraphs later, we learned that Mark Twain hated Mary Baker Eddy. And in fact, he wrote a whole book debunking her as a human being and a religious figure. Right. And, you know, a lot of profiles you just put in a parenthetic. All right. Mark Twain actually had a very big book. Right. And instead, you delay it and you make it this kind of revelation not only about those figures, but about Kilmer himself.
S2: When I think of those things, I think of how can I reward a reader for staying with this material and how can I make sure that if I’m just if I’m Jim, if I did the parents article after the statement, I wouldn’t have allowed anybody to sit with the person for very long because it’s not really getting to know them. If you say to them, like, hi, Isaac, what color, what color are your eyes?
S6: Most of the time they’re green.
S2: Actually, they’re gray. Like like it is more interesting. If I could figure out why you think that they are. Most of the time green and turn that into part of the story again. Went with these people, these people you are taking every single bit of every minute you have with them and every every good sentence they gave you. And you’re trying to make it meaningful because most people are afraid to be candid and most people are afraid to talk.
S6: Right. And structure is one of the ways to create meaning.
S2: Structure is the way to tell a story of a person. Information is not as important a structure in the story of a person, because when you get to the how famous they are, why wouldn’t you have just gone to the Wikipedia page? Why wouldn’t you have just gone to the to the US Weekly pick up of my story? That said, I’m so sad that I’m ugly. I’m so sad that I’m whatever it is, like the money quote, which is something I always hate, including because I think it distorts stories and I think it becomes the loudest thing people can hear. And I don’t want that. I want them I want you to have to sit and read the whole story if you’re gonna do it.
S6: Yeah, I mean, that’s fascinating because I think that is a good way of connecting to Fleischman is in trouble, which is is very carefully structured and is also trying to do that same sort of empathetic project in some ways of the profile of moving beyond information to get us into as much of the totality of a person as you can. And I’m curious, I feel like this isn’t a spoiler because the book’s been out for a while. It’s right there in the table of contents. Right. You know, there’s a couple that’s that’s divorced and you sort of hold off on the wife, Rachel’s point of view as long as humanly possible. Right. Until the third part, which is, you know, quite a bit of a ways into the book. Third part of three, I should say. And so I’m interested like. Was that always gonna be what it was? Was it. Were we always going to wait a long time to get to Rachel? Or was figuring that out one of the kind of epiphanies of writing the book in the first version of it?
S2: You never found out where she was and you never saw her. And it was left to you to realize how hard you needed to know where she was, which would give you infinite options in your head and for you to see how many empathetic points of adventure you could have invented in your head. And it didn’t work. Like it’s not a work book. It’s a novel. So actually, I had to figure out a way to get the same result without doing something that drastic. I had to figure out how to make it so that you were spending a significant portion of time wondering where she was. And I think about that, by the way. That is my profiling career is sitting there listening to how happy you are to be with your new wife. When I’m thinking about what you’re what your first wife would have said. Right. Or I am sitting there thinking about the mistakes you made when you were a drug addict. And I’m wondering how like how that impacted your children. But people don’t tell stories that way. They tell stories where even when they’re filled with self-loathing, even when they are making amends, they are the hero of their story. And maybe that’s how it is. Maybe every person’s a universe. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m still working through it, which is why I wrote the book and the book.
S6: I think I read that the book started originally as a kind of feature idea. Yeah. Real life friends of yours who were getting divorced. And then it sort of made the leap into being fiction. Right. I’m interested in that moment of the the choice that it’s like, well, I’m still going to explore this material, but I’m going to do it through fiction, which will, first of all, like how much experience writing fiction did you have prior to working on the novel? Were you someone who is writing short stories or if they know this is what happened?
S2: This is this is like a very like if you want to a working story.
S7: I mean, it is the name of the podcasts.
S2: Let me give it to you in in 2016. I had to like two of the last really good contracts at a magazine. I was a well-known writer and it could not help but escape my attention that I was still very broke. And I realized, oh, this is why people write books, because everyone would just keep writing articles or long articles if they could. Because it’s such like I mean, maybe that was like a self like that’s a big thing about me, is that that’s my metabolism and that’s why I have to write so quickly lest I lose interest. I didn’t write it about friends I knew. I wrote it about the fact that all my friends were coming to me and telling me that they were getting divorced. And by the time they were doing that, they were also showing me on their phones, like all their dating apps. And I remember that one of them showed them to me. And I was like, what? And I left him and I called my GQ editor and I said and I tried to explain what I was thinking. And he said, You don’t always sound like an out of touch, middle aged woman who lives in the suburbs. But you do right now because most of the GQ audience knows about apps and they and they won’t even understand what you’re talking about. And I thought, okay, that’s brutal, but fair. And I thought about writing it for the Times, but the Times would put so many constraints on it. And then I remembered that I was broke and was thinking about writing a nonfiction book so that I. Because I guess that’s why people did that or that’s why I would do it, because I needed something that would like start making for me passive income because this was not working. I gave myself six months. I sat down that day like I got off the phone with my editor and I sat down at a pencil quotidien and I. And I wrote the first 10 pages right there. Which are largely intact in the book. And I gave myself six months and I said, if you can do this, you don’t have to write a non-fiction book. And that’s what was hanging over my head. The fact that my children were young and that my non I already wrote so much nonfiction and the cost of nonfiction is leaving your children a lot. It is trying to figure out how to pay for the report. And you know, that’s such a sucker. I should have written a novel. I’m telling you, I’m telling. Here’s my tip. Write a novel. So I when I wrote Fleischman, the reason it felt manageable to me was because it felt like a profile I was writing. It was a long story about a man that in the end was really about me.
S6: So I was that, would you say in the book about the about using the profiles of men to smuggle in your own concerns. And it’s both what the novel is doing and, of course, what some of your profiles are doing as well.
S2: You can speak most confidently as a writer when you know the subject best. So if Ethan Hawke, for example, and I sat down for an hour for two hours twice, and he tells me about a lot of things, and one of the things I have questions about is whether or not. He’s obsessed with being taken seriously. And I’m doing that profile in 2018. What else is going on in my life in 2018? That’s summer. I’m picking a cover for my book and the cover that they’re sending me. Looks like keeps looking like a young adult cover. And I’m thinking, oh, my God. Once again, in my life, I’m not being taken seriously. And I have to once again contend with the questions, why am I not being taken seriously? Is that my dumb first name? Is it like. Is it like where I live? Is it because I’m irrelevant after 40? Is it. Is it my dimples. Like like literally Josh Brolin said to me after he read his story. Do you pretend to be dumber than you are. And that haunts me. Wow. He thought that was my play. He was like, this is a very good story. Did you and I guess I just come off that way. Right.
S7: Like the world is telling me, like Ropa doped him. He got you to feel like, oh, I’m here. I am. I can’t even keep a thought in my head. I mean, I’m named after a candy. Like, I don’t even know I’d have to. But that’s.
S2: But I was thinking about that. And I guess when I wrote about Ethan Hawke, who one of the many things that Ethan Hawke is that we know that he has not been taken seriously in his life. That’s the thing I heard the loudest. So when I was writing this, I think about the things that you hear the loudest, and that’s how those stories are about me, because the best way I could write about something in the most educated way I could write something is when it is out of the million things we talked about. It hits me in my soul.
S6: And was Libby, who’s the narrator. Right. You know, and is is essentially reporting out the book. It’s not going to be published as a story. She has sort of quit reporting. Right. And so this invigorates her reportorial instincts that she does.
S7: When she was out, they pulled her back. Exactly.
S6: Did that arise very early in the book is like that was what the narrative strategy was going to be, that that it was going to be reported out by someone who shares some but not all of the aspects of your life. And that whole thing, like how did she come into the story?
S2: So the book is first person, but the first draft of it was third person. She was a character and she was the character that you would never have seen aligned with me. Right. Because she was she was 43 and not 41. And she’s different. She had a brother and not sisters. And famously, I have sisters. And she and she worked at a magazine, but she was trying to write a white a novel at the time. And my only goal with that. So the answer to your question is yes, but it didn’t go this the right way. My goal with that is that by the time you were done reading this book, you would know that you were holding in your hands the book that a character inside the book had written. And I was like, just like with Rachael not being there, I was like, ha it like, poof Wollar and nobody got it. And I kept saying, Did you get that? And a lot of smart people were like, Oh, I didn’t get that. So I, I the book was delayed by a full year while I changed it from third person to first person because it was my like I kept vacillating between it’s just my first novel too, but it’s my first novel writing.
S7: Like that’s a thing that you can’t do in journalism.
S6: I mean, there’s so many things about that process that don’t mimic what the process of journalism is. So some interest in what that was like for you.
S2: It was exactly like journalism. It was it was that I sent in the first draft of a story and then we figured out how to make it better. The event the competitive advantage I had was that I was a well-known writer and my book sold, which allowed me to have not just editing, but by time and consideration for it. But this is what happens. Just so you know, when I write Gwyneth Paltrow, when I write Josh Brolin, when I write Ethan Hawke, it goes through a lot of different versions. I have rewritten things from top to bottom. And that’s why I’m so fast, because I do I believe in that process so much that I am not attached to the outcome of it. I am no longer attached to the outcome of something being born perfect.
S6: I’m very fascinated by, you know. Again, I guess this is another whale you’ve speared, which is that you wrote the first novel. You revise the first novel, the first novel came out. It’s a huge hit. It’s being made into a TV show. It got long listed for lovely prizes, all sorts of things, sort of dream reception. And now you have to write a second one now. And you are in the midst of writing a second one. And I’m interested in, you know, how is the process for this book changed for you? Like. How is you know, is there a Libbey like character in this one as well as it aesthetically different? Is the process different? You know? What’s it been like to kind of reinvent things as you go forward?
S2: OK, so Libby narrates this book as well. Like this book exists in in the Fleischmann’s Cinematic Universe, like the idea like like in this book, the action of that book happened, but it is not addressed or fixated on. It is merely reference to briefly. And it is about a family that endures a kidnapping that takes place on Long Island. And I wrote it in 2014 and I wrote it to be like a third person kind of big book about wealth and inheritance. But we’re in a very different time now and I have rewritten it from top to bottom with, I think, three of the same characters to be the story of the disappearing middle class as told through the tension between the extremely wealthy people and middle class people who in our generation who’s who until very recently, meaning maybe seven or eight weeks ago, thought they had a chance to. That you could work hard and become a very wealthy person in this country. And it’s it’s just not true anymore. And so that that’s where the book is. It’s been excruciating. If I can be honest, it is excruciating to write. It was hard for me to write the first story after the Gwyneth Paltrow reception. This has been very hard to do. I can’t believe I had a novel that was received well. And I think that this novel, I, I can’t it’s hard to function. It’s hard to know what’s wanted of me. And it’s hard to remember that. That’s not the question I should ask. It’s what I’m what’s want what I want of me or how I want to advance this kind of story. I’m always telling about empathy. And it’s been it’s been really hard. And I remember that something that somebody said to me on the day that Fleischman, I was on my book tour when Fleischman made the bestseller list and someone said to me, well, it’s really easy to write a good first novel and it’s really hard to write a good second novel. I think about that. And I. And I’m like, oh, right. If, like, the trajectory of something is that it should always get better. And if that’s your only standard, how do you know if you’re doing it until it comes out? That’s the thing that’s always scary about every profile, about every book. I hope I write about every you know, the network really loved my pilot. Will they love the second episode or will they be like, oh, I remember liking the pilot so much better. Like, I don’t know. I don’t know. And I hope it doesn’t I don’t sound like an asshole saying these things, but they are the things I am searching through right now and the things I want to talk about.
S6: Well, Taffy, thank you so much for joining us and talking us about your process.
S9: I think this is great. Thank you for asking and giving me a break.
S1: Isaac, I am positively shaken by the tonnage of wisdom in that conversation. I was fascinated by many, many things that she said, but her repeated invocation of the loudest thing a person being profiled say’s being all that some readers can hear. Really got me. When you interview someone, the question you’re asked afterwards is, did you get anything good? Which generally means did the person say something shocking or dumb or maybe smart, something that will appear in a million tweets? They don’t generally mean. Did you get a good read on their psychology? But she’s absolutely right. Facts are easily obtained these days. What is far more difficult and much more satisfying is making a celebrity visible in a new and interesting way. But that takes tremendous restraint to not just do like the touchdown dance when you got the big quote, that is really impressive.
S5: Yes, absolutely. You know, I had some experience with this when I was writing about Nathan Lane, who is I think you can easily imagine a, quote, machine. He’s an incredibly smart guy. His mind moves incredibly fast and he’s very funny and has a lot of improv experience. But when you’re writing, you only have so many words, or in that case, because it actually did appear in print. You only have so many column inches. And so you have to make sure that the profile is really focused on the actual story. And in that piece is case, the actual story was about his transition into serious dramatic roles over the past decade or so. And that meant cutting all sorts of delightful, amusing, delicious, you know, perfectly sad things because it just wasn’t germane to the story that needed to be told. Well, I do think that the great pull quote definitely will get you the readers or will least get people to click on it on Twitter. Yeah, but a great story that is trying to tell the truth in a compelling way is what will keep those people actually reading all the way till the end.
S1: Hundred percent now. I am absolutely sincere and not at all star folkie when I say that this interview was just stuffed with psychological insights. But one of the most startling was her observation that the way a person is thought of versus the way they believe they actually are creates trauma and that confronting celebrities with that mismatch is very productive. Whether you’re writing journalism or fiction or whatever. Now, this is a show about creative work. But that observation, it strikes me, is one that also applies to regular life, to family time or the office or the virtual office that we’re now in.
S5: Yes, I think there’s particular ways that it’s heightened when you’re famous because your image is like a planet that you are orbiting, you know. And so if you break up that image, does that mean you’re going to drift away into the sun? I mean, who knows? Right. But nearly everyone I’ve met thinks that there is an important way or two or three that they are not seen by the people in their lives, whether that’s the guy who they buy coffee from the morning or their boss or their loved ones. You know, there is an image we project and everyone does do that because we are all constantly performing. The individual only really exists in relationship to the other, which means it’s very difficult to really know what your true self is. And that’s really painful, even if you’re completely in control of your image and your image is self crafted. And, you know, it’s not that that’s possible, but somehow, you know, you’re completely in control of it. It’s still not going to be exactly the same as you. And that’s painful. I think that’s painful for everyone.
S1: Yeah. And it’s just a great way of getting people to reveal things about themselves without actually inflicting more trauma. You’re just prodding them to to kind of go through some therapy in the course of the interview.
S5: That’s true. Although I do think my eyes are green.
S1: They’re kind of greener, sometimes green. So most of the time. Yeah. There were several revelations in what was a very candid interview, a couple that really grabbed me. Were her talking about being objectively very successful and yet still being broke and her story of getting that brutal response from her GQ editor, though I think many of us would say that he was right and then taking that harsh no and that need for more income and creating Fleischman is in trouble. We can’t all teach ourselves to have her psychological acuity. But there’s something quite inspiring in hearing that big names go through those very familiar, if slightly. Rational thought processes.
S5: Right. You know, over the past few years, TAFE has become a superstar in her field and she branch in to another field with the novel and was hugely successful. And now she’s branching into a third with television. But in none of those fields does she have complete artistic autonomy because complete artistic autonomy does not exist. There is no one who has that. There are always material considerations. There’s always the relationship of the audience. There’s always gatekeepers. There are always collaborators. There are just always limits. And one thing I think we’ve stressed in many recent episodes is that to a great extent, figuring out how to respond to those limits is the creative process. And, you know, a lot of times you respond to it with the craft of the piece. And what’s fascinating about Daffy’s pivot to writing a novel is that that is also a response to that limit. But it’s that I’m just gonna switch genres.
S1: In a way. She was pitching it to a different publication. It was a publisher rather than another magazine. And thank goodness, because you got to even more people than it would have in the pages of a men’s magazine. Fantastic interview, full of insights that I want to sit with for a while. And I think that’s a great place to end.
S3: Listeners, if you’ve enjoyed this show. Please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, 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 thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial right now at Slate ARCOM Slash Working Plus.
S4: Thank you to Toughy producer Agner for being our guest this week and enormous thanks as always to our producer Cameron Jones.
S3: We’ll be back next week for a conversation between June Thomas and three creators and cast members of the HBO show Motza Spookies. Pouliot taught us on a four Briga and Fred Armisen. Until then, get back to work.