I run into a friend at a Christmas party in a very warm apartment. He and I eat cheese by the open window. We talk about work, and this leads to us talking, for some reason, about Renata Adler.
“You know,” he says, “there is a great Renata anecdote in the Daniel Menaker memoir about his time at The New Yorker. Menaker talks about how she reported that a hospital was bombed, but not only could they not confirm the bombing, they also couldn’t find the person who told her about it.
“Someone should write about this,” he says. “Not me though.”
The next morning I email Daniel Menaker, who says he won’t be any help talking about this but gives me his phone number anyway. When I call, it rings and rings. Menaker seems to have no voicemail. He guesses that it’s me and calls me back. I turn on the recorder, and we talk about the anecdote, what it means, why I’m calling.
I hear that Renata had no problem with this part of his memoir, and that when all you have is what someone said to you, checking gets tricky.
The next day, I’m going to California for Christmas. Because the book I brought on the airplane is painful to read, I think about the Menaker story while the person to my left watches Skyfall.
I mainly think: I am not a reporter. When I’m given the chance to get someone to say something, I like to do it, but this is because I love gossip. Gossip is a cornerstone in my most enduring relationships, because people who like to talk generally find the people who like to listen, and vice versa. Lots of great books start out with a lot of talk, from a nosy neighbor or a town busybody.
I think: I understand the impulse to make something richer by exaggeration. I like exaggerations. Once, while talking to a toddler, I told the truth behind a wound on my hand that she found inexplicably fascinating. I said that I was opening a can of peppers while cooking, and I cut my finger on the edge of the lid. She looked at me with profound disappointment, and sympathy overwhelmed me. “Just kidding,” I said, and I started to tell a ludicrous lie about a mountain lion. She loved this, but had to ask.
“Who else was there?”
Over the holidays, idle in my parents’ home, I think about what I’m going to do with this story. I think about how often I find myself asking people questions they only answer because they have been surprised by my interest. Often I have been pursuing the surprise instead of the answer. I like that surprise more than anything else in interviewing people. Usually it’s coupled with delight, and sometimes it leads somewhere, and I’m no longer searching for something to talk about.
I listen to the recording of me talking to Daniel Menaker, and it’s a tense conversation, but not as tense I remember it. I can hear that my interest in the fact of the bombing changes as the conversation progresses. I can hear myself listening.
At this point, I am reminded of two things. One is a great, characteristically chatty Nora Ephron column for New York about how she lost the job of anchorwoman on CBS Morning News to Sally Quinn, an attractive blonde who admitted to flirting with sources to get them to talk. Ephron challenges Quinn: “You don’t really work that way, and when you say that you do you’re just putting yourself down.” Sally replies that she does work that way, and Nora does too. “We all do.”
Ephron confesses to the reader that Quinn is wrong, actually, and that an inability to work that way is why Ephron did not get the job. To flirt with interview subjects takes an amount of ego she did not have. But she learns that losing the job doesn’t matter, because she wanted something else. She did not want to be a reporter; she wanted to be a star, and she would find another way to do it. She had some ego after all.
The other thing I remember is a friend of mine, whom I have interviewed, teasing me. “I’m wise to your tricks,” he says. What are my tricks, I think. Having no tact? Not thinking things through before I open my mouth? My tricks are somewhat unconscious, no matter what my friend says. They have been ingrained in me over a short lifetime of social situations in which I’ve wanted to stand out without hurting anyone’s feelings. And anyway, it’s not hard to get someone to talk about herself.
My dad has a trick: sometimes he’ll tell himself to go a whole party without once saying anything personal. It’s surprisingly easy. You collect other people’s stories.
Over the holidays, I mostly eat bread and drink wine at parties. I talk a lot, but I don’t write a word, except for a few emails. I sleep for hours, and I reread some favorite novels. Back at home in the city, I go out to drinks and I hear a new friend say that she is completely uninterested in her own work.
It’s a revelation. “Yes,” I say. “Yes.”
“But what are you working on?” And she tells me. If not everything, then most of it.