Adrienne Miller, IN THE LAND OF MEN

Adrienne Miller, IN THE LAND OF MEN

Zibby Owens: Adrienne Miller is the author of the novel The Coast of Akron and In the Land of Men: A Memoir. She was the literary and fiction editor of Esquire from 1997 to 2006. She currently lives in New York with her husband and son.

I’m here with Adrienne Miller, but I accidentally did not record this properly. I’m asking her this question again. If it doesn’t sound as spontaneous, it’s because I messed up my recording. Anyway, Adrienne, welcome for the second time.

Adrienne Miller: It’s so great to be here for the second time.

Zibby: Could you please listeners what In the Land of Men is about? If you want, I could just tell them.

Adrienne: Sure.

Zibby: No, you go.

Adrienne: Let me put it to you in flap, copy-ish sort of way. It is my coming-of-age story in the male-dominated literary world of the nineties. Two parallel stories: my becoming the first female literary editor of Esquire at the age of twenty-five and also my friendship/professional relationship/romantic relationship with one David Foster Wallace. That is the crude way of putting it. A writer is probably the worst person to talk to about how to explain and describe his or her work. During the process when I was writing this for three years, people would ask me what the book was about. I would stammer, mumble, and say it’s about my life in my twenties. It’s about working in magazines. I guess that’s enough. Didn’t sound very interesting. The book is also about power. I’m very fascinated by the nature of time. It’s a workplace story. It also has to do with how to build a self, how to be a person in the world, and how to be a decent human being.

Zibby: At the time that you got the job as literary fiction editor of Esquire, there was a lot of buzz from some probably very jealous people who wished they had gotten that plum assignment. Tell me about how it felt at the time when people were maybe not so welcoming for you in this new job having just been an assistant.

Adrienne: All I had done in the world was be an idiot in Ohio, graduate from college in Ohio. For three years, I was an editorial assistant at GQ in the literary department, but still an assistant. When I was twenty-five, long story short, the Esquire literary job opened up. I put myself up for it. I made a real pest of myself. I lobbied really hard for the job over a series of months. I put together presentations. There were phone calls. There were multiple interviews. Eventually, many months later I was appointed the job. Two extremely prominent men had had this job, literary editor of Esquire, in the midcentury: Gordon Lish who was most famously Raymond Carver’s editor and helped to engineer that whole minimalist, Carver-esque sort of style, reticent, menacing, Carver style that was so influential to a generation of American writes; and Rust Hills who had been there since 1957 and was in fact still at Esquire when I started in 1997 in a somewhat reduced emeritus role. I was fifty years younger than Rust and also conspicuously female. First week on the job, I’m introducing myself and reintroducing myself to various literary world figures, making phone calls, saying, hey, here I am. Send me short stories. I’ll never forget, one of the first conversations I had was with this very prominent male literary agent who said to me, “You don’t have any authority to do this job.” He was very direct about it. It wasn’t a backstabbing invisible Twitter insult. It was right to my face. “You don’t have the authority to do this job.” It was direct, at least.

Zibby: At least you could say something back.

Adrienne: I couldn’t totally disagree with him, also. There’s also no arrogance like the arrogance of youth.

Zibby: It’s funny. I interviewed Emily Nemens who’s the now the editor of The Paris Review. I said something to her, like, how did it feel to be plucked for this job? She was like, I wasn’t plucked. I worked hard to get this job. It’s the same as what you’re saying. Even in a male-dominated, traditionally older male-headed job, she worked and worked and got it, just like you worked and worked. You earned it. It didn’t just fall in your lap.

Adrienne: No, nobody told me that I should go for the job. Yet at the same time, nobody told me that I shouldn’t.

Zibby: Why not?

Adrienne: I thought, I’m just going to go for this thing.

Zibby: I love that. That’s so cool. That’s how all the great things happen. This book was a lot about your whole experience in the magazine world at the time and so much of what happened to you along the way. I was wondering, why did you write this now? You’ve stopped working, in 2006, as the fiction editor of Esquire. Why did you turn back to this now? You’ve already written a novel. What happened? What inspired you to write it now?

Adrienne: I think that true meaning can only come with time. That’s one of the answers. When you, twenty years later, look back on your youth and your formative years in your twenties, what did this mean? Why was I miserable? Let me really start taking this apart and processing this. I had a really hard time when David Foster Wallace died. He tragically committed suicide in 2008. I became very angry. I was very shut down. It was very hard for me to talk about.

Zibby: You had had a relationship with him.

Adrienne: Yes. We’d been friends. We had worked together. I edited four of his stories at Esquire. We’d had a romantic relationship. It was a very difficult time in my life. Three years ago, I had this compulsion to start writing down what I remembered of early conversations with him, the safe conversations before we met that were purely focused on our editorial relationship. The first story of his I edited for Esquire was called “Adult World,” this was in 1998, a very long, dense, difficult story. We became sort of phone friends for several months before we actually met. These conversations were fun and fascinating and kind of inappropriate but extremely memorable. I sat down and I put myself into a sort of self-hypnotized state and typed out what I recalled from these conversations. The book then started from there.

Zibby: Did you consider only making it about that relationship? I’m always curious how form follows story in books, how it becomes what it is. You started almost as a therapy exercise for yourself.

Adrienne: I did. I thought that maybe it would be a short biographical treatment. Maybe I wouldn’t even get into, for instance, the romantic part of our relationship. I, for a year, just wrote through it and wanted to see where it would go. I thought, maybe it’s a magazine piece. Maybe I won’t even publish it at all. Then I understood that these were two parallel stories. My career and my relationship with him were the same and in fact had the same sort of ending which was that the contraction of the magazine industry — I was at Esquire for almost nine years. By the time I finally left, I was barely able to get any fiction through. The last story of David’s that I worked on with him was killed by the magazine. We exchanged some letters after that. Essentially, that also sort of ended our relationship. The magazine was dying and the relationship then was over also.

Zibby: I found myself wondering about your predisposition, almost, in ending up in the relationship you had with David Foster Wallace to begin with, like what attracts us to certain men, what gets us into these relationships. You detail it so well in the book. You had to sort of respond to him all the time and his changing moods. It was like following — I’m not saying this well, but you had to go along with his mental illness, essentially, in however it manifested itself. You had a quote. This came earlier in the book. You said, “I became used to thinking of myself as a vaguely illegitimate presence in the life of someone important to me, and I became accustomed to providing protection to brilliant, narcissistic, charismatic, fiercely ambitious men, men who never quite thought about extending the same protection to me, no, not quite.” I was wondering about your attraction to this narcissistic type and if it was a theme throughout or if you had a narcissistic parent. I don’t know. I thought I would just delve right into your…

Adrienne: Sorry, Mom and Dad. First of all, I think I should remind our listeners that this is a relationship that I would not have had now in my forties. This is a relationship that I would not have had ten years ago, even. I was in my twenties. Part of the goal of this book was for me to recapture the mental state that I was in at the time. I’ve always been attracted to big personalities. I like characters. I’m pretty lenient with characters, less so now in my forties probably than I was in my twenties. For instance, all of this coronavirus news and election dysfunction, all of the stuff that we’re going through now, I found myself going down an Orson Welles rabbit hole, speaking of big personalities. For the last couple of days, I’ve just thought, you know what? I’m just going to watch some Orson Welles videos on YouTube. Why not? The grandiosity, the hilarity, the brilliance, I’m amused and entertained by it. This is kind of the personality type that I’m interested in, attracted to. I’m a writer. I also, frankly, maybe am possibly mining these types of people for material for things I’m writing. I have great tolerance and great interest in the big, bold personality, male and female by the way.

Zibby: It’s hard. Sometimes these magnetic personalities, it’s hard to stay away.

Adrienne: It’s hard to stay away. Also, you don’t have to do a lot of work if you don’t want to. You can just sort of sit back and be entertained. I’m not specifically talking about David because there was a lot of work involved for me with David.

Zibby: You asked a really interesting question in the book, which is, “Do you have to include what other people think about you in your own understanding of yourself?” Tell me about that line.

Adrienne: I spent a lot of time when I was younger worrying about what other people thought of me. I didn’t quite understand, as you don’t when you’re young, that people actually aren’t really thinking about you that much. One of the great things about getting older is that you realize that actually no one is thinking about you. They’re thinking about themselves. Gore Vidal has this great quote, said in his very WASP-ish way, it doesn’t matter what other people think of you; what matters is only what you think of other people. This is, twenty years later, where I am in my processing of human relationships. Then I wish that I hadn’t, for example, asked everyone’s opinion before having made any decision. Now I rely much more on my own conscience as the ultimate decision-maker.

Zibby: In the book even, you had some drafts of previously submitted fiction pieces to the magazine. There were a million comments. You’re like, how many people does it take to make a decision around here? I feel like it’s the same thing. You don’t have to rely on this collective decision-making as much.

Adrienne: Totally. Interestingly, I was always very confident, back to the arrogance of youth, in my literary judgement. I never questioned that. In terms of my ability to actually live my life in my twenties, your drama in your twenties becomes everyone’s drama. We’re all like that. We’re sort of in it together. Then we become our own islands in our forties, I guess.

Zibby: I feel like you have to because you have to keep your island afloat between kids and work. It’s like you don’t even have a choice. You had this one little comment in the book where you said you realized you loved reading plays and you had considered writing one. I know you’ve written a novel. I was wondering if you ever went back to that. It was sort of a throwaway line. Have you thought about going back to writing plays? What else have you thought about writing?

Adrienne: I became totally obsessed with plays because I was, at the age of twelve, thirteen, obsessed with the movie Amadeus which is written the great British playwright Peter Shaffer. He wrote the play and then also wrote the screenplay for the movie. I had my father take me to the Akron Public Library, Akron, Ohio, every Saturday so I could read plays by Peter Shaffer. I discovered Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard. Didn’t understand, of course, a word that Tom Stoppard wrote. Then I got really interested in Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. I love plays. I still love reading them. One of my favorite writers today is Annie Baker. I think she’s my favorite writer. The Flick, Antipodes, and John, which is so amazing, I’ll read and see anything she puts on. What is human life other than dialogue? I found also through writing, in writing this book, that I have a pretty precise memory of the delivered phrase.

Zibby: I could not believe how much you remembered in this book. I was like, how on earth did she remember all this?

Adrienne: I’m, by the way, a real stickler for this. I sort of made a rule with myself not to put quotes around a line of dialogue unless I remembered it exactly. I’m fascinated by the way people speak, by people’s speech patterns, by their acoustic profiles. I would like to write a play, actually, and a screenplay. If things had gone differently for me in my life, I would’ve been, probably — I was a nerdy theater kid. I probably would’ve been one of these kids who sent a letter to Hal Prince, the great midcentury theater director, who then sent an articulate, passionate letter to Hal Prince. He’d take you under his wing and you’d work for him for like forty years. That probably would’ve been me if I knew how things worked or if I knew how to make my way in the world when I was a teenager. I love it. I’m a Broadway baby. I love plays. I can’t get enough.

Zibby: I had someone on the podcast recently. I was like, your book should be a play. Maybe I’ll put you in touch with her and you could just write her play.

Adrienne: Please. I would love that.

Zibby: There we go. That would work out perfectly. You had another quote I wanted to throw out. You said that Granger, who was your editor at Esquire, said, “Never underestimate how unprepared most people are.”

Adrienne: That was great.

Zibby: Talk to me about that.

Adrienne: He hired me out of college. He was a friend of a friend. How do most things in this world happen? Because you know somebody. I got the job as an editorial assistant at GQ because a professor of mine knew someone who knew Granger who was an editor at GQ. I had no sparkling CV at the age of twenty-two. I’d had an internship in New York. That was it. I was an English major like everyone else. I was a women’s studies minor like everyone else. There was nothing, really, to distinguish me, but I studied before my interview, back issues of GQ. I went to the library at school, pre-internet obviously, mid-nineties. I studied like a Koranic scholar, back issues of GQ for like ten years. I was able, when I went to New York for my interviews, actually able to talk about what I had read in GQ. The writers who wrote the pieces, I knew their names. I stylistically was vaguely able to talk about them. That’s the only reason I got the job. Granger finally admitted years later that he had hired me because I was the only candidate for the job who’d bother, even, to open the magazine. I think that’s an important part, also, of my story and really any professional story. Be overprepared.

Zibby: It’s so true. I took a writing class a while ago. I think it was by Susan Shapiro. The teacher said you can’t pitch a magazine unless you’ve read at least a year’s worth of issues of the magazine. I remember, it was so long ago, I went to a library and I had to get down all the magazines from the library and paw through them. Who was advertising in this? Who were they appealing to? Who else was writing? Don’t pitch a topic that’s been pitched already, all these things. It’s so true. It’s something that, in our rush to finish everything, I feel like sometimes gets lost.

Adrienne: For sure. It was always so extraordinary to me, the number of short story submissions at Esquire and also at GQ I would receive with names of past literary editors from like twenty years ago. Clearly, they hadn’t even opened the magazine and looked at the masthead. Rule number one, guys.

Zibby: Come on.

Adrienne: Come on, guy.

Zibby: After you went through the whole magazine phase of your life where you were doing this, then what happened? What happened between when you left Esquire? Did you write the novel right then? If you were doing a quick timeline of your life since then, what’s been happening?

Adrienne: Big event, I had a kid who’s now eight. It turns out that having a kid is a huge time commitment. No one warned me about this, but great, beautiful. I get weepy looking at pictures of him from a year ago, five years ago.

Zibby: He’s so cute. I’ve seen him on your Instagram.

Adrienne: He’s eight. He’s the joy and the love of my life. I taught creative writing at various places. I did publish a novel that FSG brought out. I’ve been working on another novel. I’m just mortified to actually admit how long I’ve been working on this novel. I think it’s almost done, but over a decade. So that’s it.

Zibby: Wow. What’s that one about? Can you say?

Adrienne: There’s barely a man in it.

Zibby: In the land of women.

Adrienne: Exactly. The men who appear, the male characters are not these slightly toxified, questionable figures. It’s a different type of man. It has to do with women in the classical music world.

Zibby: You’re a classical music fan?

Adrienne: I’m a classical music fan and a very poor player of piano and violin.

Zibby: Both? You can’t be that bad. Do you still play them?

Adrienne: Piano, a little bit. Violin, no way. My son takes piano, Suzuki, fourth year.

Zibby: Wow, that’s impressive. I tried that with my kids.

Adrienne: There were a lot of temper tantrums driving the kid in tears into his piano class, but we’ve gotten past that.

Zibby: Having worked in such a male-dominated world, I feel like things are obviously very different today. People are much more aware of gender and lean in and all the rest of it. If you were to give advice to somebody going into a more male-dominated field now, maybe like a hedge fund or something, having worked your way through this yourself, would you have any advice from your own experience?

Adrienne: A spine of steel. Don’t listen to what they say. Consult yourself as your favorite person and the only person whose advice you rely on. Expect that it’s going to be difficult. I think that that’s really it.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Adrienne: Expect rejections. It’s funny. When I started at Esquire, there was a rejection letter waiting for me that past editors had written from a submission by David Foster Wallace, a famous Wallace story called “The Depressed Person.” It had been resoundingly rejected at Esquire. Ten different editors — there were a lot of editors who worked there at the time — weighed in on it. Half of the people loathed and admired it. Half of the other editors just pretty much loathed it. It was, at the start of my Esquire career, very instructive for me to see that. This was two years after Infinite Jest was published. This has become one of his most famous stories and maybe, actually, even a canonized story. This is a very taut, very famous story, and it was rejected. It was resoundingly rejected at Esquire. I guess the point is that people don’t really know — even the experts don’t even really know what they’re doing.

Zibby: That’s a little depressing. It’s true. It’s like a crapshoot.

Adrienne: It’s true.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s luck.

Adrienne: Luck and perseverance, self-belief. At Esquire, I was so both impressed by/astonished by the regular submitters. I would get people who were pretty much consistently rejected. They would just come right back, slugging away with another short story submission. I kind of love that. You have to love the self-belief. It might actually be the most important quality and the most necessary quality in terms of success.

Zibby: Just one last question. When you evaluate what you like and what you don’t like, you said you never questioned your literary taste and what you thought would be a good essay versus a bad short story or something like that. Is there anything that you particularly respond to or that you think makes a great short story as a reader?

Adrienne: An element of surprise, I guess. I tend to read really for style too. I love a voluptuous little reading experience. I love a beautifully composed sentence. That’s not enough though, of course. The stakes need to be high. That’s a very abstract thing to talk about and to explain and describe. It’s not only that something that needs to happen. It’s that it needs to sort of wound you in a way.

Zibby: That is a perfect ending because that’s what happened to you in this book, your relationship and the suicide and all of it. That’s what made this book so good. It’s full circle.

Adrienne: There’s a happy — thank you, but I think —

Zibby: — I didn’t mean to say it was a depressing book. To me, that was when you showed yourself the most. That’s what I responded to the most, not the suicide. I mean, I’ve read about David Foster Wallace’s suicide in plenty of other books, but it was your response and your experience of it and leading up to it. I found that very unique and moving.

Adrienne: The mask really had to come off finally at the end.

Zibby: It was a great book. I didn’t mean to say that was the only — I responded the most to that particular part, but I thought it was great at the end.

Adrienne: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Adrienne: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you.

Adrienne Miller, IN THE LAND OF MEN