Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s new novel Fleishman Is in Trouble owes its existence to dating apps, unhappy marriages, and tardy celebrities.
On the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, she said the idea for the book came to her after she turned 40, when several friends started telling her that they were getting divorces.
“They would show me their phones and they’d say, ‘You’ll never believe what’s going on.’ And that’s the thing that set me on fire at first,” Brodesser-Akner recalled. “In the ’90s, you had to show up in your disgusting human form, look people in the eye and try not to look too needy and try not to look like you wanted it so badly. And now suddenly, there are these apps where you can just name your availability [and] your desire.”
Previously, Brodesser-Akner has been better-known for her profiles of public figures such as actor/Goop CEO Gwyneth Paltrow, celebrity chef Paula Deen, and CNN journalist Jake Tapper, and several of those stories have gone viral online. The fact that she specializes in writing about famous people was also, inadvertently, an important reason for the book’s existence.
“I wrote the book sometimes on airplanes, sometimes on weekends, but mostly while I was waiting for an interview subject to show up,” she said. “Which could be anywhere from 20 minutes to three days.
”People think that the thing I do is so glamorous, and it’s not,” Brodesser-Akner added. “It is hard to always be the least-important person in the room. Then when they want to be your friend, well of course they want to be my friend. I showed up when they said I would. I only ask them questions. If you want to be my friend, you have to hear about my in-grown nails. You have to hear about my babysitter who just quit.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Taffy.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who could be wearing a jade egg with me right now — I’m not going to tell you where — but in my spare time, I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network. Obviously that jade egg thing, I absolutely would never do such a thing because Jen Gunter told us not to on my podcast.
But today in the red chair we have someone even better, Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Is that right?
Taffy Akner: Yes. Brodesser-Akner.
Brodesser-Akner. She’s a writer for the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine, one of my favorite writers. In fact, possibly my favorite, except Olivia Nuzzi would hit me if I said that.
Oh, I love her.
There’s so many amazing things ... who’s written several incredible pieces, including a profile of Gwyneth Paltrow that everybody read last year. She’s also the author of a new novel about marriage, divorce, and ambition called Fleishman Is in Trouble.
Taffy, welcome to Recode Decode. I’ve so been looking forward to this today.
Me too. It is really exciting to be here.
This is going to be... We have lots to talk about. Let’s talk about this. So you’re on this book tour for your novel, but you’re so well known for other things. So explain to people how you got to the novel. Let’s go through your early history from birth, essentially. No, let’s go from how you started writing these big, giant profiles in a very different way.
Now let me just preface by saying, I worked for the Style section in the Washington Post when I was in my early 20s and that was sort of the heyday of profiles like this. And then they went away, like Stephanie Mansfield, Sally Quinn wrote a lot of them. They were all kinds of amazing. Mary Battiata. Just astonishing profiles that sort of blew the top off of the profile genre. And then it changed, really quickly. So let’s talk a little bit about how you got to where you got for the Times.
My first job was at a soap opera magazine, where I would write profiles.
Okay, now I see.
Although everyone hated them. Everyone would say, “Ah, Taffy filed a profile. We’re going to be here all night.”
Why? What was the problem?
I don’t know. They’re exactly what I write now.
So I think it was just ...
Were they mean?
No, never. I was never a mean writer. I think I was just not ... You know, I went to school for screenwriting, so I did not study the form. What I did was I started writing personal essays because I had a baby at home and I couldn’t go out and I couldn’t do anything that involved reporting. It scared me too much to try to tally up the babysitting hours or trying to figure out if that was my new life.
And I started writing personal essays and those did pretty well. And then one day, I was so sick of myself. I had wrung out every experience.
Like diapers, whatever.
Like every ... But also it wasn’t about ... I rarely wrote about parenting. It was about my body. It was about giving birth, like the science of giving birth and how awful giving birth is.
Yes, it is, indeed.
How crazy it is that we’ve all been born and this is how we do, like, how no one has disrupted this? Could you please talk to your people?
Yeah. What we want is to get 20-something white men to get on this. No. Let’s just move on. Let’s not let them near birth. Somehow, the data would get stolen and then Trump would get reelected due to it. Go ahead.
Right. So I was writing these personal essays and one day, I just got sick of myself and started writing about other people, with their consent. Like I started ... I pitched to magazines and slowly, slowly, the first one I ever did was a Q&A with Krysten Ritter for Playboy Magazine. Stephen Randall gave me that. And then I came to New York. I was living in LA at the time. My husband ...
And you wanted to be a screenwriter.
I wanted to be a screenwriter, but I wasn’t good at it. I wasn’t good at it because I was writing the ... In the ’90s I was taught to write these trite ... I mean, I think Con Air is a great movie, but I was taught to do this thing where there’s a brooding hero and he has six problems and he has to get them solved and page 30, he would meet his girlfriend and she would be redemptive and if he wasn’t likable enough, you could give him clubfoot and if you wanted people to hate him, he would kick a dog. There were all these very ...
These tropes. And I was obedient and I was following these tropes and it was only later ...
Obedient. That’s an interesting word.
I was. I was obedient. I was like, “This is how you do it.”
I just interviewed Natasha Lyonne, who is not obedient.
She is not obedient.
And she has found a place, which is interesting. But back then you couldn’t do that.
Right. She also, I mean, I’ve interviewed her too. She ...
She was washed up. She called, she said she was in Nowheresville for the longest time.
She was. But also she was, you know, I think that she went to a yeshiva on the Upper East Side and she ... Was she kicked out of it? Or did she leave?
Something like that.
Something like that. She was not ... she was always doing the things she’s doing now. I was always doing the thing I’m doing now. I’m no Natasha Lyonne, but I was always doing the thing I’m doing now and I just recently appreciated it.
Right. So screenwriting wasn’t for you in the way it was in the ’90s because you had to fall into a formula.
Or it was because I didn’t have enough imagination to say, “Okay, now how can I take these rules and parlay them into, like, the truth of somebody?”
I think you couldn’t then but go ...
Do you think so?
Yeah, I think you couldn’t.
Because there was like this indie explosion?
No, because I think you still couldn’t. It still was a certain kind of indie explosion. I think once Netflix came in and Amazon and others, you could start to find ...
And there was sexism, which no one had told them about.
Right. No one had told you.
Nobody told me. I was from a house full of girls. And I went to an all-girls school and we thought it was cured. We thought it was it was like something we read about. We thought it was like a Margaret Atwood book of ... It was like reading about the Salem witch trials.
Mm-hmm. Oh, I remember that.
It’s like, “Oh, that sounds like it was terrible.” And then we got out into ... And then I was with a soap opera magazine, which, you know, the woman is the thing, in a soap opera at least. And then I ...
You started writing profiles.
I started writing these profiles and the thing that I found ... I was still following the same formats I’d learned in terms of storytelling, like a three-x structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end, callbacks, running jokes, things like that. Themes, right? Things that I wasn’t reading in other profiles. Not that I was reading so many profiles. I was still reading screenwriting books. I was still reading novels and I was writing these things as if they were personal essays.
Right. Yeah. You were always in them.
I was applying the rigors, but it was their personal essay.
But I wasn’t always in them.
Well, you’re commenting. You’re hearing the inside of your head while you’re talking. That’s what’s powerful.
Yes. I always did that very boldly, because I read a lot of GQ and ...
Right. GQ did that. They did have that.
GQ did that and I think that a lot of what happened to me was that the things I was reading ... I was reading what men had permission to do and I was assuming that I would have this permission. And then when I assumed that I had this permission, I went in and I tried to be very easy to work with. I know these are the wrong messages. I was easy to work with and I was always on time. I filed, always spell-checked, and in the same font.
The one big flaw I had was that I wrote too long. And literally the way I became a long-form writer was that I would write good stories that were very long and that if you took out a part of them ...
There was just a little Twitter thing about that.
We’ll talk about that. It’s ridiculous. Was it Felix Salmon? One of them.
Who said ... Which one?
Wrote that you write too long. That there’s too-long profiles. Did you see that? There’s a whole Twitter thing about long ... I was like, “It’s perfectly ...”
Maybe. He loves me, though.
No, he does, but there was someone saying, “I can’t read any more 10,000-word things, though.”
I mean, I love you too, Felix. I can’t read. Oh, it was, “I can’t read any…” It was in reaction to the 10,000-word cover story. It was all a Twitter circle jerk that started with something that Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic said, that then other people were talking about, women who could write 10,000-word stories, which I think that the whole conversation around that was ...
It was strange. Mostly because it ignores what is true about it, which is that it’s not ... Nobody thinks women can’t write 10,000-word stories. It’s that the people assigning cover stories in particular ... They assign cover stories based on the cover story they want to read, and I don’t know a lot of men who would say that they want to read a Gwyneth Paltrow cover story or a Weight Watchers cover story.
Luckily, I have an editor-in-chief and an editor. I have Jake Silverstein and Mike Benoit, and they ...
They do. They want that.
So you started writing these pieces and got known for profile writing?
I got known for profile writing.
With a heavy dose of Taffy.
Yeah. It was more like that I would come in when I was needed. I always felt like a writer’s job is to tell you how you’re supposed to metabolize the information you’ve been given. And I think some people probably do it maybe more artfully than I do and they don’t need to come in and explain it or have a reaction to it. The way I did it was to have a reaction to it.
What’s powerful is that a lot of those profiles, like just on Vanity Fair and other places, felt cooked. Like they’re ... They felt cooked. And here you are, like, struggling. That’s what’s ...
No, I am ... Everything ...
You can feel your struggle.
I am all-in. And I am always struggling, but I am never ... I’m always ambivalent.
So how’d you get to the New York Times, then? You were writing these and they ...
Oh my gosh. So, I was writing these ... I did not write one profile. I was just writing some good stories. And then I had a meeting with Adam Sternbergh, who was the culture editor at the New York Times Magazine then. And I mentioned Zosia Mamet in hopes of maybe doing an essay about the children of celebrities who are now celebrities.
Right. She was on Girls.
Girls. And Allison Williams was on Girls and I ...
That’s right. Brian Williams’s daughter.
Yeah. And I thought that was going to be my thing. And before I could say anything, I said her name and he said, “Yes, we should do her.” And suddenly I understood. I was in a moment where something incredible was happening to me and I was ... You know, I talk about this as luck.
And he says, whenever I say that, he said, “No, you were, you were nice to be around. You seemed good to work with.” And so I’ll take that credit and I’ll say yes. I always assumed that editors want the best possible. I don’t understand people who don’t like to be ...
Because you don’t understand how difficult some people are to work with. That being an editor ... how hard it is to get really good stuff out.
You mean from the editor?
No, from the writer. I mean, I’ve been both, but I’m relatively cooperative when I write. People are always surprised. They think I’m going to throw fits and then put in a jewel to them, like, but kick the shit out of them while I’m delivering the jewel.
But you don’t.
No. I’m on time.
Because editing actually always helps.
Right, exactly. A hundred percent.
I can’t believe that there are people who want to help make your work better without taking any credit for it. And we’re supposed to treat them like shit?
A hundred percent. I was just talking to someone, not on the Recode team, but I was like, “You’re not talented enough to be this difficult. Your work is not good enough. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you.”
That is a thing you can’t ...
But it’s true. Like, I have a thing, a prick to ... It’s a prick-to-productivity ratio. And I use it with tech people.
Have you published this?
I’ve talked about it.
You should. You should.
I should publish it.
It should be an app.
It was like Steve Jobs ... Okay, he was a prick, but, boy, the productivity was high, so he gets to do that. But Gates ... You know what I mean?
You better be such a genius if you’re going to act like a genius.
And even then, is it that good a thing that we want? Anyways, so that’s how I think about it. It’s like, you’re a real pain in the ass and you cannot do this unless you deliver me such a ... Like, you poop out something so good that it’s just like gold.
I’ve never been an editor, but I know how many writers are trying to do this. And I never thought it was even an option to have a tantrum. I mean, you hear about people treating fact-checkers ...
Yeah. Oh, yeah.
These are people who want to make sure you don’t get sued.
For a small amount of money.
Well, good editors. And then, of course, there’s editors who are uncreative. As a writer for the other side, who are just not creative in any way and want to stick you in a hole. That’s ...
I’ve had some of those, and I don’t work with them again. But mostly I find that those ...
No, I love editors.
They are products of the magazine culture. And there’s some magazines you find out that you should stay away from.
Right, exactly. So you started writing and then you started writing regularly for them. Now you’re a writer for the New York Times, correct?
Now I’m a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, but I started out at the New York Times Magazine. I wanted very bad ...
Yes. And then on contract. I very badly wanted to write for GQ. A GQ editor named Mark Lotto left GQ and started Matter. Do you remember, the Medium magazine?
Yes, of course. Yes. Uh-huh. They’ve had a lot of them over the ...
Yes. Yes. And on the first day he said to me, “What do you want to write?” And I gave him two pitches that GQ had turned down, and he said yes. One was about Britney Spears and one was about Paula Deen. And those helped make my career.
The Paula Deen one was brilliant.
Thank you. I remember I saw the tweet. It was her comeback. It said, “Come join us on the white sandy beaches.” And I was like, “Yes! I will join you on the white sandy ...” Yeah. And I was so excited. I was so excited to tell everyone I was a Jew when ... they did their impressions of Jews for me. It was amazing.
Oh, wow. Yeah, I remember that.
It was a strange. Yeah.
So you ... You’ll show it to me later. So you started writing for the magazine and you’d written a whole bunch of different things, but one that got a lot of potential, obviously, was Gwyneth Paltrow.
Yes! That did very well.
Talk about that, because we’ve had Gwyneth Paltrow at our conference. It was an interesting experience. She was there to talk about abuse online because she gets more than anybody. I’ve never seen ... She can say “hello” and she gets flamed. It doesn’t matter what she does. Even if she’s at her most annoying, I get some of that. But she literally can say, “Hi, have a nice day,” and it suddenly becomes ...
She is what our millennial friends call “triggering.”
She is, I know. It’s really funny. And so I was like, “Come and talk about that, because you can take it.” She did an okay job. But I’ve been following her because I thought Goop was really interesting.
I was immediately struck by it and everyone sort of made fun of her. I’m like, “No, no.” It’s sort of like Arianna Huffington. There’s something here, you know, with the Huffington Post. And a lot of people laughed at it when she launched it. And so I contacted them and she’s had several CEOs I know. And so I was always intrigued by Goop and then it sort of got out of control as a product. So how did you get to that? Because she’d been written about a million times.
By the time I wrote about Gwyneth, there was not an editor in New York who didn’t know that I would come out of whatever contract I was in if offered a Gwyneth Paltrow story. So much so that she was in some kind of PR crisis.
This was all over the Jen Gunter, who I’ve had on the podcast. Jen Gunter’s a doctor who has pushed away a lot of these ideas. I was joking about the jade egg, but there was a story about putting a jade egg in your vagina on Goop.
I mean, she’s great.
She does an amazing job.
She does a great public service of making sure that you know that just because Goop does the wellness thing of, “Hey, we’re just asking questions,” not realizing that the things that are in print matter, right? Like, things that we say with authority have authority. Underwire bras was a great thing I think Jen Gunter did, and it goes on and on.
It goes on and on. What she does is she just fact-checks Goop and what it was ... Goop started off with selling cool things that Gwyneth Paltrow likes.
Yeah. Like, “Here’s a sweater I like.” And everyone’s like, “Oh, I want that sweater!”
“Here’s a sweater that you can’t afford.” Yes, yeah, exactly.
But some people can’t afford it.
I think that’s the other thing that bothered people because some people can’t afford it. The idea of ...
And she does have flawless taste in lots of things. Like her ... The way you described her kitchen was so ...
She’s perfect. She’s the only person I’ve ever met who is perfect. Like, she is. She is everything that ... She doesn’t claim to be because she’s too perfect to claim to be. She really is. She lives as this cipher and this mirror to show you all the ways that it could have gone for you had you been way luckier than you are.
Well, your kitchen scene of her making pasta and not getting ... In a white dress with the children and not getting a spot on her.
And it was perfect food.
Nothing. And she was drinking, and still nothing happened. And it was perfect and it was delicious. And there was a room with a fireplace where we were suddenly eating by candlelight and then we were smoking this one perfect cigarette and I went on a tear. I was still smoking a year later. I was like, “I guess I’ll just finish this pack.” And she was like ... When she saw me like four months later ...
Uh-huh, I want to talk about the reaction to that.
She said ...
She probably liked the piece.
I thought so. All right, so you wrote this piece. So she was, she became an internet person. She became this internet ... You know, I talked to her about this, like what she was doing and I thought it was actually quite brilliant because a lot of celebrities do these sites. Tons of them. Jessica Alba had one, I think that’s still going, Honest. Tons and tons of celebrities try to do different internet things. Matt Damon had something, Ben Affleck. She’s the only one who’s really ... Reese Witherspoon, I think, has something else.
Yeah, she has that ... The thing is, the thing that they all do that she does differently is they all go down market. They all say, “Here, you too can look like Reese Witherspoon. Best of luck.”
With these cheaper versions.
Yeah, I think it’s Draper James is her clothing line and it makes the Reese Witherspoon lifestyle accessible.
That’s sort of like Jackie ... What’s her name from Charlie’s Angels? Jaclyn Smith.
Jaclyn Smith and Kmart. As if Jaclyn Smith had ever walked into a Kmart. What Gwyneth Paltrow did that was different was she said, “I’m not, like, this is for people who are like me.” There are those people and they would like eye cream without endocrine interrupters in it, which is not to say that her eye creams ... I tried to get them tested. I was going to do a whole thing, but it’s very hard to do that kind of testing.
I would imagine.
I was like, “I’m going to bust this wide open.”
Especially when it had vampire bat placenta in it or something.
I mean, yeah. I mean, obviously, you have to get a waiver from the vampire. Yeah.
So you decided to write this. What was really fascinating about this piece is it was devastating and also complimentary and also yearning. And it was really ...
It was everything I feel about her. To be in a room with her...
It was never mean. It was never ...
No, I try never to be mean.
You could easily do a mean ... And there were moments that were truthful that were unfortunate for her, but that’s the way ... It seemed like you took a picture of her. That’s what I kept thinking. You took a photograph of her.
This is what I think about all these profiles, is that everyone ... The thing we think is mean is actually our judgment. They stand behind who they are. At the beginning of my career, I would protect people from their quotes, but then I realized, they knew who I was. I was in a room with them with a tape recorder. They were trying to tell me something and it’s not my job to protect them from themselves. And it’s also not my job to take things out of context, so that tabloids can use the quote and it get ... that sort of plan.
I’m lucky that I’ve never had to work at a place that demands that of me, but she stands by who she is and she’s radical. She was telling me, she’s like, “I don’t know. We’re gonna get married and I don’t know if we’re gonna live together. I don’t know if I’m going to wear a white dress.” And all I could sit there and think is, how come I never thought of not wearing a white dress? How come I never thought of not doing everything traditionally? How come my parents couldn’t figure out a way to get divorced and overcome whatever ... My mother’s answer for that is, well, they have a lot of money and we didn’t and that’s really what it is. But ...
But the idea of doing things differently. She’s probably one of the most creative people I’ve ever met in that way and I wonder if a lot of that is how ostracized she’s been and how traditional ... She’s so ostracized from everyone that it never behooved her to try to fit in.
And also some of the claims on Goop are dangerous, are actually dangerous, and that’s the part ...
That’s not what we’re talking about.
Right. Exactly. No, but no, it’s her as a personality. So she liked it. I can, I imagined she would like it and not because she’s stupid.
She’s not stupid.
What I’ve learned about what people like and what they don’t like is that it depends on what their goal was for participating in the story. And her goal, I think, I have not discussed this with her in the ... afterward, but her goal was to be taken seriously as a businesswoman, meaning that you could even say that she’s dangerous. You could say it like you could say all of these things as long as you’re moving forward from the story of, “Look at this dilettante actress who started a business.” Her business is to be taken seriously.
It is tremendously influential and it matters to a lot of people. And all you need to do ... The tier of people I sometimes hang out with, I remember hanging out with a publicist before her client arrived to an interview and she was just telling me how much she loved Goop and it made me realize that the problem ...
Well, it’s a guilty pleasure, essentially.
No, no, no. She was like, “That’s where I go for my recommendations.”
The problem is that journalists are writing about it. Like the thing you hear about Goop is from journalists, and journalists have a lot of reactions to claims that are not fact-checked. They have a lot of reactions to things we can almost inherently not afford. It’s always crazy to me that we’re the ones sent in to evaluate things.
And there were a couple of times where someone tried to give me a Vogue story and I would have to say, you know, I can’t do that thing where I pretend I’m a rich lady who is evaluating this goat semen facial. I can’t do that.
There is such a thing, isn’t there?
I can only ... Bet there is.
Bet there is.
I can only do the thing where I can’t believe there’s such a thing as a goat semen facial.
What’s interesting, and I want to talk about your Weight Watchers story and then start talking about your book, is you inserted yourself quite heavily in the end, especially.
The Weight Watchers story.
You are in there lots of times. There’s lines and you do those callbacks and stuff like that. In the kitchen you had one and several places.
Are we on Gwyneth still?
Yeah. Gwyneth, yeah.
But at the end, you really, you somehow linked it back.
Oh my god. I just collapsed.
I know you’ve ... And you’ve linked it back to your sister and it was just ...
Oh my god.
Riveting to end a profile like that. You were in the room with her.
No, and I didn’t end on a quote. I really like the ...
No. I was like, “This is about Taffy, not about Gwyneth Paltrow,” but in a great way.
This is about all of ... Had you been exposed to the stimuli I was exposed to, this is where you would end. And who better than to end that profile than the person that she is trying to compel? The Gwyneth Paltrow business story is not about Gwyneth Paltrow as much as it is about your reaction to Gwyneth Paltrow and your attempt at Gwyneth Paltrow-hood. So the one thing I try to do at the end of that profile, and it’s a real story, I was like, “I feel great. I am going to be so hydrated.” And I drank all of these waters. I just keep drinking all of these waters.
And then you just stopped.
But then, I’m not even in an Uber because I’m a journalist.
I’m on the Hertz van, and I’m like, I’m screaming like, “Really? I’m not ....” It’s like, “Someone has to help me, someone has to help me,” and I have to ... I almost missed my flight.
I still have an injury in my knee from running for that plane and running to the bathroom. And I realize you can’t just be hydrated, you need someone to also take you to the bathroom.
It’s not ... Her argument, which I understand, is like, “Why don’t you just eat some more produce?”
And she doesn’t understand that you have to acquire the produce and you have to wash the produce.
No, it just shows up at her house.
It does show up at her house and she doesn’t understand why, if other foods are showing up at my house ...
Yeah. And she also is a master of willpower. That is like, and she said to me, “It’s something I cultivate.” And I guess I only think about cultivating willpower.
It’s very Kardashian, if you know the ... I would love you to profile the Kardashians.
I did. I did Kris Jenner.
You did do Kris Jenner. That’s right. You did, yeah.
I did Kris Jenner, which is not quite.
The whole family.
No, you need to do the whole group.
I would love some time in a room there.
They’re actually, I have to say, I’ve spent a lot of time with Kim Kardashian. She’s lovely.
I’m sure she is.
I’m also one of four sisters. I feel like we’d get along great.
Yeah. You need all of them all together.
I need all of them together to just ...
And possibly the brother.
Everybody, the whole gang.
The whole gang.
I’d like to see you with the whole gang.
I would love to do that. I accept.
So you then did Weight Watchers, who, the CEO is trying to sort of really internetize that company, the new CEO.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
How do you pick these? So why did you go to Weight Watchers then?
Weight watchers was a ... I wanted to do a story about American fatness and that story, I did backwards. I said, what is the thing that I’m seeing? The thing that I’m seeing now is that people are — and also I saw it in magazines that I had been writing for because I was still freelance when I did that story — that you’re not, you don’t want to be thin anymore. You want to be healthy. You want to be fit. You don’t want to lose weight. You want to be your best. And all of these euphemisms that were making me crazy because if you want me to lose weight, and I’m not even allowed to talk about it anymore, that I just can’t participate in a universe where words mean nothing. And I thought, what could it possibly be for Weight Watchers? The company is called Weight Watchers.
Weight Watchers, right.
An alternative would have ...
Well, we’ll get to that. I predicted that. Did I not predict that?
Yes, you did.
Yeah. I should get some high-profile Silicon Valley ...
Consulting, prediction, psychic network. Yeah, it’s now WW. Although the last I heard of that, you know, they hired Kate Hudson and people went nuts, and also the amount of people in those meetings who were, they were like, “You’re not letting thin people in now, right? We don’t, we need to be, we need a safe space to talk about being fat.” Because even the thin people were still fat people. That’s how they felt. They’re like, “I am a fat person who is thin right now.” And if you take that language away from them then not only can they not exist outside those rooms, they can’t exist inside the rooms.
Inside this room. Yeah. Yup.
So I could’ve done it on Lean Cuisine as well. That would have been also an interesting way in.
But Weight Watchers is such a huge ...
And I love the idea that when I went to join for the story, they’re like, “We have seven of you.” Isn’t it weird that there are seven Taffy Akners? I’m like, “It’s all me.” I don’t know any person, I don’t know any American woman who, of a certain, you know, of a certain something that does not have a long history with Weight Watchers.
And they were open to it. They wanted to talk. They had a new chief science officer, a job that used to be a dietitian and was now a psychologist, which kind of told you everything you needed to know. I find that in terms of stories, when it occurs to you, it occurred to you for a reason. You know how sometimes you’re watching Facebook and suddenly something you thought of is there in the algorithm and you’re like, “Oh, have they tapped my brain?” And no, it’s that you were attacked by the same series of stimuli that ... The algorithm is perceptive.
Right. Yeah, exactly. It knows where you’re going to end up.
And so my algorithm is ... What I have found is that when I want to do a story, Gwyneth Paltrow for example, I will find that there ... Gwyneth Paltrow has something to say. I will find that Weight Watchers is interested in something to say, that there is something new, you know, there is something new going on.
Right. And going through the noise that we have now, with all the enormous noise that happens online.
So you just pick them based on how? What is the thing?
On something that’s bothering me. That’s why, the ambivalence that you’re talking about and the struggle you’re talking about, those are all real things that I am seeking to work out and I am very lucky that I am given range to do those things. I am also, I mean I’m also lucky that I have the, I guess it’s confidence, to say, “This is the story for right now.”
The Weight Watchers story, I don’t want to body shame, but that’s a skinny masthead we’ve got at the Times magazine. It was, you know, I had to explain a couple of things, which, to their credit ...
“You guys have never gone past four almonds.”
I was like, “Should we bring in a special editorial team for this one?” But luckily, they all listen and they all know that my pain is real.
So I want to finish up talking about journalism. In this modern age, when there’s so much noise ... And one of the things that happened is your story exploded on social media.
All of them do.
All of them do.
And so I’m thinking, because they’re super long, they’re very in depth, there’s a lot of you in them, but they are Twittery. They’ve got a ... and it’s very, the good side of Twitter, not the ...
Not the dank hole that can be sort of a cesspool, but it’s got the lightness.
But it’s not light, either. It’s a really interesting ...
I feel like you’re a writer for the new age, and yet from the old days too. They aren’t heavy profiles but they’re not light either. It’s a really interesting ...
I think some of them are very heavy in terms of their emotional content.
A hundred percent. Exactly.
But they go down easy.
Yes, exactly. How do you think about writing now when you do have an audience that’s online, you do have it. It’s read online. It’s got, it’s reacted to and you’re very active yourself, which is interesting.
Yeah. I’m a big talker.
You’re a big talker.
I’m not like a ... I always wanted to be a recluse.
So how do you even think about when you write, because it used to be drop these stories and then go away to the New York Times. Now the New York Times has to participate in the world, essentially.
Right. I think that the danger is in, you have to know how to listen and to not let a couple of loud voices be the story of your story.
But ... I don’t know what this sounds like, I have great editors who are concerned with not being too to the left or too to the right and who are concerned with getting a real story, and I have been very lucky to learn that whenever you’re telling the absolute truth, the Weight Watchers story was a controversial ...
Could’ve been a controversial story.
Because in the end, in this kind of world of body positivity and anti-dietness, which I would love to participate in, I wound up on the side of, I still terribly, terribly want to be thin. And I think that that could have exploded, but if you are heartfelt and you are good at explaining yourself, I think you can say anything. I think you can make your point of view known.
I think that the thing I see most often is that there are reactions to profiles or reactions to stories.
And they move very quickly now in the way they did it.
And that people cancel you and that you’re the ... And it just means that you didn’t pull it off.
That’s a really good way of putting it.
Your impetus was probably pure. You have something you want to convey that is more middle of the road. Most of the journalists I know are more middle of the road than they are extreme and you didn’t pull it off. And that’s my fear, but I have editors who make sure and also, in certain cases, you know, I had a body-positivity person read my Weight Watchers story, I had a lifelong dieter read it and I had a photo editor and a fact-checker, who had both been members of Weight Watchers, who read it and cried and that’s when I knew I was fine.
Right. Do you think of, and you move from topic to topic, do you, I would love you to write more about tech because the best piece ever written about, say, Airbnb was by Jessica Pressler because she came fresh. She’s amazing.
My god. She’s the best at everything.
No. You’re like, you, Olivia, and her are the troika of feature writers, as far as I’m concerned.
We thank you.
It’s okay. I think it’s a really interesting, I read every word, which you don’t ... people read differently now too, which is funny. They read quickly.
They read in a zigzag of what is the thing?
No, but I’m waiting for your lines. That’s what’s really good about it.
Oh, thank you.
And same with Jessica and the same with Olivia. There’s always a zinger in there, something really smart that you want to not miss and you don’t want to miss in the context. But have you ever thought about writing about politics, tech, all the big things now?
Are you working on anything?
I’m on a political profile right now.
Oh, you are? With whom?
I can’t say. I’m not allowed to say.
Is it Mayor Pete?
No, those were all spoken for. Mine is far ...
I’m not saying.
Marianne Williamson. It’s got to be.
You can’t say. No, no.
You can’t say.
No, I resolutely say, how dare you?
Absolutely. It’s got to be.
How dare you?
Who’s going to be onstage? I’m so excited.
I’m very excited for everybody who’s onstage. I hope that the person I am writing about may or may not be onstage.
All right. Yes, they are onstage. I think that ...
Backwards circle conversation. Denying everything.
Okay. All right. So let’s get into how you decided to then go into fiction.
Let’s talk about the book that you’re here for, actually. The book is Fleishman Is in Trouble. Explain to the people what it’s about.
Okay. It’s about a man who gets divorced and who’s, on a plot level, and his wife drops the kids off.
Right. But first of all he gets divorced and then he suddenly: Tinder.
And then suddenly ...
Every day. He can date all over the place. He has a thing.
The thing that set me on fire about this was, when I turned 40, I’m 43 now, when I turned 40, the amount of people coming to me, friends whose weddings I had been to who said, “I’m getting a divorce,” and I’d say, “Oh, are you doing okay?” And they would show me their phones and they’d say, “You’ll never believe what’s going on.” And that’s the thing that set me on fire at first, that I wanted to write about what it was like when you were in the ...
That’s a good piece for you.
I know. Yes, yes. In the ’90s, you had to show up in your disgusting human form, look people in the eye and try not to look too needy and try not to look like you wanted it so badly. And now suddenly, there are these apps where you can just name your availability, your desire, and ...
Which some people think are negative for women, but go ahead.
We’ll get to that.
For men, it’s like ...
I know, but, but, but, okay.
Yes, but I agree there’s different, there’s great pieces to be written about the psychology and sociology of all this.
Right. You don’t have to leave your home to have a date, to arrange a date.
No one has to find you.
No, not at all. And especially as, to me it’s the absolute, the center of it, I guess the quintessence of it, is with gay apps and stuff like gay men apps. Years ago, there was an app called m2mforsex.com. Years, a hundred years ago. It was in San Francisco, which is perfect, m2m for sex.
Yeah, I mean, it says it.
It was a website, but I was fascinated by the matching technology. So you’d go, “Oh, I’m in the Castro and I’d like to meet someone downtown at four o’clock and I’d like to be peed on and I like this.” And it went ... And I was so intrigued by it.
I was like, wow. And I was like, not the sex part of it. I called a very major internet person, Jerry Yang, at the time. I said, “You need to buy this company now. It’s called m2mforsex.com.” He’s like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “No, it’s not about the m2m. It’s like that they can match. Think about it. If you could match anybody anywhere, what do you need to do anything for? Because the algorithm will match you and it’s, can you imagine?” And there was another one called ImaHima in Japan. It was, “I am here. I’d like to have a drink in this part of Japan,” in Tokyo. And I was like, “This is this.” And there was one called Six Apart, same thing. They were all around this idea of matching and I was like riveted to this idea.
And when you apply it to human relations it becomes fascinating.
And there was the Nancy Jo Sales piece that was sort of awful, about dating, right?
About the idea of dating. So much so that I woke up my then 12-year-old kid and I said, “If you ever speak to women like this,” my son, “if you ever speak to women like this, I’ll kill you.” And he’s like, “What are you talking about?” I was like, “I’ll break your arm.”
He’s like, “It’s time to wake up.”
So this was started. So this, you were around, people who were doing this.
I was so excited. I called up my GQ editor and I said, “I want to do a story either on maybe a profile of a modern divorce and this whole new world.” And he said, “You know, we don’t really do that anymore here. We’d need a celebrity bent. But also the other thing, the other problem is, is that the reader won’t understand what you mean. The reader grew up with apps.”
And I thought, but there has to be away to convey ... I felt the storyness of it in me the same way I felt Gwyneth Paltrow rising up through my spleen out of my trachea into, yeah.
I must Gwyneth. I must Paltrow.
Like in through my pores, I must. It’s a calling.
And so they were just using these apps and they noticed that their whole life was different, had become ...
People who weren’t ... not ... People, especially my friends who were, I guess the ones who are hyper-articulate as opposed to stunningly beautiful suddenly had men and women who were interested because ...
They were hyper-articulate.
Say what you will, you can lead with your words. Although ...
And your wit.
Yeah. And your wit. But there are no mirror neurons. So you don’t ever, you don’t ever ... you know what I always think about, I always think about, in my family’s Hasidic world there are matchmakers and if you ever look at a matchmaker’s list of, you know, they keep a file on every single man and what he wants, and they always say they want a woman who’s a size zero. They have no idea what that means.
Does it mean absence of woman? I don’t know what it means, but it’s a size zero.
I see that sometimes in stores, I’m like, “Oh. This is for an 8-year-old.”
I’m like, “Oh. Is this the goal? I bet you this is the goal.”
And I mean, I’m not a size zero and I don’t know if I could’ve survived in the, here’s what my actual size is, but I did fine as a person showing up. So, I thought that, I just thought it was endlessly interesting. I thought it was different from ...
The modern divorce in the age of Tinder and algorithms and things.
Right, right. And also the divorces that I was hearing about were all divorces in which the woman was out-earning the man. And it was never the stated reason for it, but it was always there. Meaning that some kind of traditionalism had been disrupted on a different schedule. The women, you know, I had grown up hearing that I could do whatever I want, that I could be whatever I want. I don’t know if anyone told the men that.
I don’t know if anyone told the men. And so what happens is you marry a guy who’s a feminist, right?
Forgive me. Yeah. Or he thinks he’s a feminist, or he’s trying to be a feminist and he’s doing, being the change he wants to see in the world.
And he’s so happy for you to do the thing you want to do, but he also wants, he also needs you to still tiptoe around his fragility. He still needs you to, he didn’t understand that encouraging you meant that you wouldn’t be there at the door with the martini that his mother was at the door for his father for.
So who has them? Who gets them? Does the woman get the martini now? Should there be a martini? Is there always a balance? Is everyone allowed to be who they are? And the answer’s no.
And so, along with the dating changes, and the dating is all kinds of amazing and it’s all kinds of fucked up, just like dating when I did it, the idea that a man still expects a traditional role from a woman in any way, makes me have a lot of questions about marriage and its slant and whether or not it can be sustained, whether or not as an institution, in three generations, we’re not going to have worn it out.
Right, right, right. And gays are just getting here.
Right, I know.
I used to say only gay people want to get married and go into the military, but that’s not true, I mean, think about it, like, that’s what you want. What? Just a minute. So you write this book and you couldn’t write a piece about it.
I couldn’t write a piece about it, so the minute we got off the phone, I think I was on Fifth Avenue, I pulled over into a Pain Quotidien, and I wrote the first 10 pages. And after that ...
Wow. In a Pain Quotidien? It must have been a very big inspiration.
Yeah, it was, yeah, yeah. There was no wifi there, so it’s easier.
Because it could’ve been like avocado toast. It’s like right.
There could’ve been quinoa.
The quinoa could’ve gotten jammed in the keyboard. And who knows? We wouldn’t be having this conversation.
I like and dislike that place equally, I can’t explain it.
I cannot explain it.
I want to like it.
I know, with the farm tables and the ...
The farm tables and the folksiness and then ...
Yeah and the Nutellas everywhere and ... Nutella’s nice.
I know. Yeah.
Anyway, so, but it’s the chain. Then you’re like, “I’m in a chain.”
And you’re like, “Ugh.”
”This is a nicer version of Panera.”
”Ugh. This is a Panera.” Who are we kidding?
I know. We’re kidding. It’s Panera with a farm table!
Just because you’re wearing an apron doesn’t mean you’re not a Panera.
Anyway, so you started writing it. What’s the goal here? Talk a little bit about what you want ... tell the story, a little bit of the story. Get people interested in it because it’s a great premise. It’s like Kramer versus Kramer.
Some have said.
That it’s about the constraints of marriage and the constraints of divorce.
And children in the time that we’re living in now. Where a woman is an unacceptable thing. It’s unacceptable for her to assume a traditional role. It’s unacceptable for her to succeed at the highest levels. What’s she supposed to do? We can succeed how we want to, but we can’t pretend that, if we’re heterosexual and if we are trying to have a relationship with a man, that there isn’t something that we don’t have to consider the regard of those men. Because the regard of those men is what will predict how things go.
You could have a man who’s not very ambitious, a woman who is ambitious. That could be the arrangement. One day he can still be upset that he never got to fulfill his ambition. That happens all the time. I see it with so many people. They don’t name it. They don’t quite name it. It’s just the thing I keep seeing. When that happens, all the other crap about marriage … “Wait. Did you do the vaccination record? Did you fill out the camp forms? Can you fill out the camp forms? Why did we hyphenate our last name? It makes the camp form so hard.”
Why did you hyphenate?
Oh my god.
It’s not like you’re lesbians.
I know. I know. Maybe secretly. What happened was that my mother was divorced twice. She had three children with my father, and another child with my step-father. She had to go around changing her last name based on what school she was picking up from. She was the one who was raising us. Then again, like I was saying about Gwyneth. I lacked the creativity. The millionth difference between me and Gwyneth Paltrow, she has her creativity. I lack creativity. My friend Reyhan just named her baby. She’s married to the baby’s father and she gave her baby her last name. I was like, “Oh wait. It could’ve been that simple?”
It could’ve been that thing. You didn’t think.
It didn’t occur to me.
Taffy, you can do anything you want to do. I’m giving you a piece of big information.
Can you just tell me? Can you just write that down somewhere for me?
You can do anything you want to do. That’s how I operate. Anyway, you have to think like a lesbian. You don’t have to be one, but you have to think like one.
That’s the thing. I was born with such traditional tastes.
But I was never forced to reconsider anything.
Which is what’s great about this book. I think that’s what’s interesting. Talk a little bit about doing ... it’s a great age for the New York Times and for writing nonfiction. Talk about writing fiction. You have this story of this guy whose wife ... I can say this at the beginning because it’s right at the beginning. He has the kids. He suddenly gets free. He can date, he can do whatever he wants. Then the ex wife leaves him with the children.
She leaves him with the children.
Why that? Why was that the way you set it up?
Honestly, because the thing I was most concerned about in writing a first novel was that I knew I could write a profile, but I didn’t know if I had enough plot to get me through. I knew a plot had to be an engine to get me through to the end. I just thought ... what is the thing that this woman might do? The thing that she might do, especially as she’s sketched now. She goes to Kripalu for a weekend.
Right. Free side. Then she doesn’t come home.
Kripalu is a yoga retreat. Go ahead. Go ahead.
Have you ever briefly lost your child in a supermarket?
Once. Not in a supermarket.
Where was it? In that moment ...
In the Presidio in San Francisco.
Oh god. Really?
He took off on a bicycle, and just, I couldn’t see him.
I bet he’s still grounded.
No, he was like, “Mom, I knew where I was going.”
I know. “I wasn’t lost.”
He was 6 or 5. I was like, “Ah.”
I think the minute you lose your child just for a second, it’s the only time you really understand how big the world is. Like, all of a sudden that’s when you see it. I thought, what if somebody is gone without a trace? Do you remember when Evan Ratliff did that experiment where he went missing and he had this contest?
Was it for Wired?
If you could find him. Yeah, if you could find him.
To see if you could find him. I was fascinated with that. What if someone just disappeared, and what if it was the most taboo thing in the world? Also, I was reading all of these novels or hearing about all these novels about women who disappear. In all those novels, the woman who disappears is always being altruistic.
Or not. Or Gone Girl.
She’s not a mother.
Right, okay. Yeah. Okay, yeah.
But the mother in the genre of mothers disappearing, the woman is always being altruistic. The set-up is she looks like a monster, but really, she’s amazing.
So many Joan Crawford movies. What’s that one Joan Crawford where she leaves because she wants her daughter to have a better life?
The name. It’s the name of the ...
In any case.
Yeah, because she’s altruistic and she looks like a monster. That’s exactly right.
Yeah, she’s altruistic, she looks like a monster. What if she is a monster? What if the answer to where she is actually isn’t as satisfying as, “Oh she was doing in service of her children the whole time”? Women are still people, even when they become mothers. Even though the things that caused those books to be written in the first place are true, that a woman ...
… is preternaturally connected to her child. What if something goes wrong, though? What if it all gets too much? I guess that’s the most I can say about that because I have an OCD thing about myself. Where I sometimes do an experiment like, what’s the most horrifying thing I could do right now? In this moment right now, what if I reached across and just put my hand on your knee and forced you to have ...
I’ve had people do that.
I used to think ... I remember once speaking to a rabbi and thinking, what if I just tapped him on the nose right now and said, “that sounds good?” What if I did that?
I think of this all the time. It’s so funny. It’s often when I’m driving. What if I hit this car?
Right. Like what if I just do it? What if I just say it?
I was thinking what if you could take back time for a few minutes, but do the thing you want to do?
You at least have a plan.
I actually do a lot of the things and then I go, okay I’m going to do it. Not hitting cars, I don’t.
What’s the thing you did? Tell me that.
Oh, just like should I say this to a person, and then I just do it.
Like what? Give me one. Give me one.
It was a big VC. It was something and I thought, oh this guy is such an asshole. I do it a lot now. I’m like, “You’re just an asshole.” I was like, it feels so good. It feels really good.
Was he like, “Yes, thank you”?
“Well, that’s mean.” I’m like, “Yeah that’s right. It’s meant to be mean.” I’m like thinking right now. I think I start to say these things ...
My gosh. You’re amazing.
I know. Saying things is what I’m doing. Taking physical action, no.
Right. Not yet.
Right. I was in Atlantic City for a story this weekend and I watched a couple of choice parenting moments around me in the casino.
Oh, that’s always nice.
I thought ... I saw a baby with a bottle with soda in it. Like, a baby. I was like, what? Can I do it? I couldn’t do it.
No, because then the baby could get hurt. That’s what you have to think about that. What could they do?
Also, they probably have guns. They seemed the type. Based on their t-shirt choices, they might have guns.
That’s true. That’s a fair point.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Atlantic City.”
Not at a casino though. Not in the casino. Unless you’re in Texas.
This is what my husband saw: A guy was smoking a cigarette on one of the casino carpeted floors. A security guard came over and said, “You can’t smoke here.” The guy looking him in the eye, took the cigarette out and stubbed it out in the carpet. If you want to talk about a story that predicted things, the Paula Deen story predicted a lot of this behavior.
Right. Exactly. Exactly. When you’re writing about this, it’s interesting because it’s born out by anything goes everywhere now. People express themselves like that on Twitter. People express themselves on social media.
Yeah. People don’t have to look at each other in the eye anymore and see the reaction to who they’re hurting or what they’re doing. There’s some really ugly stuff out there. It takes a second. I think the reason I have yet to reach my inevitable cancellation on Twitter is that I take a second to think, “This is clever, but at whose cost?”
Which makes you a nice person. When you write about fiction, how do you look at fiction now? You get so much impact. Fiction had a tough time. Some of it has. This is getting amazing reviews.
I could not believe ... yeah. I was like, I will write this and it’ll be this adorable part of my Wikipedia page. I’m really surprised at how people are reacting to it.
Have you sold it for the movies?
We’re in the process.
We’re in the process.
We’re talking. We’re in talks.
We’re talking. Your agents are talking to their agents.
The agents are talking to other agents.
Do you like writing fiction better than nonfiction?
This is how I feel about it. I feel bodily pleasure writing about it, knowing that I didn’t have to deal with a fact-check and call where someone turned on me and said horrible things that they would take back later when they read the final piece. The burden of getting things right, those are things that weigh on me. The burden of pleasing my editors and making sure I give my editor something that will please his editor. Those things weigh on me. The thing that was a problem was that, I think the thing I’m good at in journalism is observation.
Right. You’re very observant.
There was nothing ... To make people up ... If you make people up, you can’t observe them. I had to make these people up. Then I had to extrapolate what their particular quirk would be. That’s really hard work. In revisions, that was a lot of the work.
Right. What you were doing. Do you expect to write a lot more fiction?
I already am due for my second novel. It’s called Long Island Compromise. It’s about wealth.
What about wealth? I know some rich people.
Do you? Have you ever met any rich people?
I literally have ...
Someone’s like, “Do you know any billionaires?” I’m like, “I know 52.”
Do you know 52 billionaires?
It’s some number that’s more than a dozen.
I know them well. It’s weird. It’s weird and I knew them before they were billionaires.
Oh yeah. They weren’t rich when I met them.
That’s what it’s about. It’s not about the divide between rich and poor. It’s about the divide between the kind of rich where you’ve always been rich and your family is rich and you have never really known about the edges of survival.
Yes. Then the other kind of rich where it’s, you could be as rich as you want, but you always know what it’s like to struggle. So you never feel rich enough.
That is true.
I just use that.
That’s how I think of people.
I used that phrase on someone who was asking me about some of this irresponsibility by tech people. I interviewed someone from Amazon who was saying, “We’ll continue to make facial recognition software as long as it’s legal and the government can figure it out.” You’re like ... you know what I mean? Wow, that’s quite an attitude. It’s in the same line of irresponsibility of tech people, essentially. I always say they have all the advantages and none of the responsibility. I finally said, I can’t believe I said this on CNBC. They said, “What do you think of these people?” I said, “They’re so poor, all they have is money.”
What’s happened to a lot of these people who were poor, because I didn’t know them ... they weren’t poor, but they weren’t rich. You know what I mean? They very quickly get used to the convenience and the bubble and the lack of friction. And they don’t understand anything else anymore. They really don’t. They take it for granted. There’s a town car that leads to a private plane that leads to a beautiful home that leads to a ... when you talk about impact, they don’t even ...
They don’t understand. They don’t know what the subways look like. They don’t know what’s around them.
Not just the subways. They can take subways. It’s just they don’t ... it’s a ...
The Q train, at best.
Yes. The Q train, basically. No, it’s just a different ... there’s always someone there handing them the fruit with Gwyneth Paltrow. There’s always someone. When you start to ... I had an encounter. You and I will talk about rich people, if you’d like.
Yeah, I would love to do that.
I was with one of the big founders of one of the big tech companies. He was wearing yoga pants, which I’m always like, please don’t. That kind of thing. I was talking to them and they started doing a downward-facing dog when I was talking to them.
This was someone I’ve known for a long, long time.
It was at the TED conference. This is even worse.
Okay, then that’s fair.
The whole thing. No, it’s not fair. It’s not fair.
That sounds right.
We were having a conversation, a serious conversation. Then they started doing it. I was like, “What are you doing?” I’d known this person for a long time. “Oh, I needed to do the downward-facing dog.” I was like, “Well, we’re talking and now your ass is in my face. What are you doing?”
I was wondering, what position ...
No, but what position were you in?
I was standing up with the ass in my face.
Like, okay. In the yoga pants. The whole vision was too ...
The only thing you could do is name who it was right now.
I will to you, later.
I’m not going to do it right now. I was like, “You need to stop doing this.” They were like, “Why? Nobody else minds.” I’m like, “They do mind.”
They do mind.
I said, “They’re just not telling you they mind. Finish the conversation, then go over there where there’s plenty of yoga mats, I’m sure. Then you can do it.” It was a really interesting moment. I’ve never forgotten it because I was like, “Wait a minute.” It was fascinating. It’s an interesting topic.
It’s very interesting about what I will tolerate from people I’m interviewing versus people in my life. People ask me when I wrote the book. I wrote so many features. I wrote the book sometimes on airplanes, sometimes on weekends, but mostly while I was waiting for an interview subject to show up. Which could be anywhere from 20 minutes to three days.
Oh my god.
Yeah, where you’re rescheduled suddenly because something happens suddenly.
I hate that.
And they can’t see you and you’re stuck there for a few days. That’s the kind of thing that I won’t tolerate. People think that the thing I do is so glamorous, and it’s not.
No, it’s weighted.
It is hard to always be the least-important person in the room. Then when they want to be your friend, well of course they want to be my friend. I showed up when they said I would. I only ask them questions. If you want to be my friend, you have to hear about my in-grown nails. You have to hear about my babysitter who just quit.
Yeah, you’re not their friend.
I’m tedious. Someone should give a medal to the people who are my actual friends.
Although, I think the best journalists can seem like friends. How’s that?
You know what I mean? I’m always with a bunch of people and they’re like, “I thought we were friends.” I’m like, “We were never friends.” I said, “I don’t know how you imagined that.”
But that’s a personality type. I’m always like this, and people say to me, “You don’t seem like a journalist.” I’m like, “I don’t know how to feel about that.”
Let’s finish up talking about this. You write Fleishman Is in Trouble, it’s in the stores.
It’s complete. You’re going on a big tour and stuff like that.
You’re going to continue writing for the New York Times, one hopes.
I love that place and I love that job. I can’t believe how lucky I am.
What are you working on besides this profile?
You’re going to do profiles. You’re going to continue to do profiles.
I’m on the hook for two profiles and two larger cultural stories that are more in line with the Paula Deen story or the UFC story that I wrote, that are just about subcultures.
Are you surprised by all this attention you’re getting? You’re getting a lot. It’s a Taffy world right now.
This is what I think.
If I’m being so obsequious.
But it is.
Is that true?
It could end.
Yeah, I mean all the world could end, right?
I think about ... I went to the museum ...
Do you know we’re in a simulation, according to many internet people?
I knew we were in the ...
That’s something you should write about.
I still don’t understand The Matrix.
We’re in a simulation. That is a very good topic.
Wait, wait, what?
Elon Musk and Tony Hsieh who started Zappos and others think we’re in a simulation. This is a game by a future power, a future ...
Will you give me phone numbers to call immediately after this interview? Yes.
Yes, it’s a really interesting concept. This is a game. Like Trump is just part of a new ... that’s why.
My 11-year-old wants to know how we know we’re not in a dream.
But he’s 11.
This is an elaborate video game by someone in the future who’s a higher civilization.
That makes sense to me!
Anyway. I just thought it’s a good topic for you.
Anyway, I’m very surprised about the attention I’m getting. I also don’t really, I can’t really understand it. If you go to the Museum of American Natural History right now, the American Museum of History right now, the planetarium show is about dark matter. Maybe it isn’t anymore, but a couple months ago it was about dark matter. A thing that Neil deGrasse Tyson says is that when you’re in the universe, no matter where you are in it, you always feel like you’re in the center of it.
I don’t know if it’s that or if I’m really getting a lot of attention for this. It feels like I am.
Well, you’re a beautiful writer.
Let me finish. What advice would you give to people who are writing in this age? I think a lot of people are super twitchy. I think they’re not thoughtful. It seems to me what you showed is this same thing works. You’re following in the footsteps of a lot of great profile writers, right?
What works now? What would you say?
Like radical honesty and no commitment to form other than everything in the interest of telling a great story. No indulgence. No self-indulgence, no funny asides, unless they’re needed. Radical compassion. I think that the internet, that a lot of things are so cruel right now. We’re seeing so much cruelty in the world that to have empathy for everyone is revolutionary right now.
And to do it. Also, at the same time, it’s pointed. You’re not necessarily a kiss-ass.
Right. I’m not a sucker and I’m not a kiss-ass, but everyone has a point of view. If I don’t convey it, then I didn’t do my job. Then what was I doing? Was I just riffing? If I spent time with somebody and they conveyed their point of view to me, isn’t it my job to tell you what they said? That’s what I think.
A hundred percent. It’s such a delight, Taffy. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thank you. I’m a huge fan.
Well, I read about things not as interesting as yours. Fleishman Is in Trouble, it’s by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. You should buy it. It’s wonderful. I’m going to Europe. I read pieces of it, but I’m going to read the whole thing.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be in the simulation with you.
Thank you. Thank you. It’s great.
You’re a great character in the simulation.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.