This Is Literary: A Conversation with Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Taffy Brodesser-Akner was a prolific freelance and contributing writer before joining The New York Times as a staff writer in 2017. She is most famous for her celebrity profiles, several of which have gone viral. Her profiles have also won her the New York Press Club Award and the Mirror Award.

The New York Times bestselling Fleishman Is in Trouble is Brodesser-Akner’s first foray into fiction. The novel follows Manhattan hepatologist Toby Fleishman as he deals with the disappearance of his high-powered, soon-to-be ex-wife, Rachel. But the story is narrated by another character in the book, Toby’s friend Libby, and this allows the novel to balance dual perspectives and shine a light on what it means to be a woman in the world. In Fleishman, Brodesser-Akner harnesses the great strength of her nonfiction writing—an ability to elicit a wider range of emotional response toward people we have been conditioned to either worship or deride—to tell a story that by turns offers readers pleasure and pain, frustration and gratification. 

Brodesser-Akner is a very busy woman these days but I was able to tag along virtually as she shopped for what she called “the biggest guilt package anyone has ever received” to send her son at camp while she goes on a book tour. We didn’t waste any time and got right to it, discussing the challenges of being a writer and a parent, and the financial realities of freelancing.

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The Rumpus: I was looking through my questions and I thought, I’m going to come off as the biggest lunatic stalker. That moment in the Gwyneth profile when she’s talking to you about the third kid—maybe you should have a third kid. I feel like I need to ask you should I have a fourth kid. It’s actually a real question—by real I mean tied to writing—because I know Mary Higgins Clark had five kids and Danielle Steel had a number of children, but it seems like most of the people I see out there who are successful have two kids max. Is there a cap on the number of children you can have and also be a working writer?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I had this theory after doing a series of profiles that everybody I was doing a profile on had one child but not just one child, one male child. And I was like, maybe you just have to have one male child. But then, you know, I come from a Hasidic family and I have a sister who has seven kids and she has a thriving interior design business. Listen, you already have three children, I don’t think four is going to change things. I’m on my book tour, my book is on a bestseller list right now, the fact that I didn’t have a third child is the tragedy of my life and I hope it’s the tragedy of my life. I also think that if you’re putting decent people out into the world, there is a need for that.

Rumpus: But then I think about your Jonathan Franzen profile and how he thinks you can’t do good work if you don’t fence yourself in.

Brodesser-Akner: So, do you think that’s true? I mean, you read my book. My book is compared to his. I did that not fenced-in. My children were on my lap. I was sitting and I was watching episodes of terrible children’s television shows while I was writing this book. In these rounds of interviews, people ask these questions like, is there a special place where you write? And I want to just stare at them and be like, yeah, my special place I write is wherever I possibly can write. Like, what are you supposed to do about it? There’s never an idyllic moment. There’s never a beautiful moment when this book was written. There was never this moment when, if you had seen me, you would have been like, that’s a writer’s life. You would be like, oh my god, this poor woman. The ship has already sailed for either you or I to have clean, orderly lives.

Rumpus: And you wrote Fleishman Is in Trouble while you were freelancing?

Brodesser-Akner: Yeah, it was a Word document that remained open in the background of my computer. It never got closed for six months. It would have taken ten years to write if I didn’t have children and it took six months to write because I don’t have time to be romantic about this. If this isn’t going to work out, I have to know now, because I’m stealing time and money from my family every sentence I give this.

Rumpus: It’s interesting because in the book—maybe we should talk about the book instead of whether I should have another child…

Brodesser-Akner: That’s important and I don’t want you to think it’s not important and that you’re not supposed to ask people who are a few years ahead of you if they’re happy or not. How does it come up with me and Gwyneth? I was asking her, she’s a few years older than I am. At the time, I felt like I was at the end of being able to make an argument that I should have a third child and it’s all I could talk about and it came out in my interviews. Don’t pretend your interviews should be this erudite set of questions that someone else came up with.

Rumpus: I think that’s what everyone loves about your work. Because we all have these things, these small dramas and things we’re confused about or nervous or indecisive. What I’m saying is that you’re my Gwyneth.

Brodesser-Akner: First of all, that’s crazy but second of all, thank you, I accept. And third of all, I found early on that if I bring my interests to the interview—I’m pretty basic, most people have my interests. So maybe not everyone is thinking about a third child, but everyone’s thinking about a something; like, even Gwyneth couldn’t have it and she wanted it. And by the way, I’ve been tremendously rewarded for being as specific as possible. Don’t apologize for these questions. These are great questions. I have been asked enough what it’s like to be a journalist who now wrote a novel. You can find that and cut and paste those quotes anywhere.

Rumpus: All I want to do is interview successful women and especially successful women who have children and ask them how the hell they did it.

Brodesser-Akner: It’s very hard and I promise you, you don’t ever feel successful while you’re doing it. The more success you have, the more you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. And wherever you go, there you are. You are who you are and the only chance we have is other people’s wisdom. I’m very jealous of your third child and one day I’ll be over it, but I’m not [today]. I feel like the more you surround yourself with stimuli, the better it ends up. I could not fit anything in until I had children.

Rumpus: This is for a literary magazine so we should probably get back to the book!

Brodesser-Akner: But what if we brought this into a literary conversation? What if the literary conversation was two writers talking about what children can take away and give to your writing career? Isn’t the mistake to say let’s move on because we’re supposed to be literary? This is it. This is literary. I have been very fortunate to become friends with people who have children and who are successful writers and they are the reason that I know that it’s not supposed to feel right or amazing or good and it probably never will. That’s a lot of peace, to know that this upheaval that you feel is never going away.

Rumpus: In terms of the money, in the book your narrator talks about the magazine industry and how men get to do all the cool stuff and get all the money and the women don’t. Is that still the case? Because now, especially after four-dollars-a-word-gate, you’re the successful one. Are you now the writer who gets the Ayuahuasca stories?

Brodesser-Akner: I’m not at a men’s magazine anymore and how much of that has to do with that, right? A men’s magazine is for men, and a man doesn’t necessarily want his experience narrated by a middle-aged woman. That’s fair. But no, I don’t think there are any restrictions on the kinds of stories I do now at the Times. I was literally on an Ayuahuasca story at GQ when I left, though. The book is fiction. There’s a character that resembles me, but anyone with another information knows it’s not me.

But if you want to talk about that thing that happened a couple of weekends ago: I knew it wasn’t about me. It could have been handled in a kinder way, but it wasn’t about me. People are allowed to be outraged that other people make more; that’s how revolutions get started. That doesn’t mean it didn’t make me feel sad and self-conscious. I was on a story that weekend, and doing endless interviews for the book, and my kids were there, too, so even if I wanted to weigh in on it, I didn’t have the time right then. But I always knew it wasn’t about me. Watching it out of the corner of my eye, though, what was about me was an understanding that just a few years ago, coming from nowhere, in my almost-mid-thirties, with small children and no money, I had a scrappy underdog status. I realized watching that conversation that I don’t anymore. I’m not sure what to do with that, other than double down. I think discussing rates is important. I don’t regret it. I don’t think anyone will ever do it again, though.

Rumpus: I found it interesting to watch that whole thing unfold while reading your book where it’s so much about how hard it is for everybody to see the other person’s perspective, especially when you’re hurting, you’re worried about whether you’re going to be able to make a living at this thing that you love.

Brodesser-Akner: It’s impossible, nobody wins. I think our only chance is to share with each other what we know. The four-dollar quote, I’m not going to quibble with the decisions of the Cosmo editor but it was taken from a larger conversation. Also, it was historic. I’m in a union at the Times now. I’m on salary. I also don’t get a word rate anymore. That’s how strange that conversation was. It’s funny, my editors were like, can you believe this is going on about you. I can’t. Because they all knew that for the most part I was not paid four dollars a word but I always asked for it. And that was an exercise I made myself do because it was uncomfortable. And I found that I did get more sometimes but now I hear that people who ask for more are losing the assignment and that’s—I feel like it’s all falling apart around us and I don’t know if I have advice anymore, like, what’s my advice now, if nobody even knows that people are getting four dollars a word and if people are still writing for free or twenty-five cents a word.

It’s so hard to imagine that you’re supposed to do this thing that you’re good at for free, although writing is so weird. I worry they trick us into thinking we’re lucky to do this, and that’s why the rates are so low.

Rumpus: There’s no money for this. This is one thing that you can be really good at and the market just does not necessarily reward it. Sometimes it does, in a big way.

Brodesser-Akner: If everybody had not written for free ever, do you think it would be different? I do wonder if—the old Huffington Post when it came in with this, “here, women, here’s a platform for your blogging” and instead of being outraged women were grateful… I don’t know, but it’s too late to ask those questions.

Rumpus: It’s too late and you’re talking about a group of people who had no way to be heard and being heard is currency in itself, getting a platform is not nothing.

Brodesser-Akner: It depends what your goals are. My goal was always to not have to go back to an office job. My goal in my whole life was always to be heard, yes, but I think my larger goal when I started this as a career was never—like, when people would try to convince me that something was prestigious and I should do it for free. Someone once told me, yeah, it’s for exposure but you could die from exposure. I always loved that.

Rumpus: A couple of years ago writers like Jennifer Weiner were vocal about the way novels written by women are tagged as chick lit and not “serious fiction” like Jonathan Franzen. In this book you write that the only way that the only way to get someone to listen to a woman is to tell her story through a man—Trojan Horse yourself into a man. You are now being compared to Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. Does that mean that the Trojan Horse worked? Have we not made any progress?

Brodesser-Akner: That’s an interesting question. Maybe it worked. I think half of it is that it worked and half of it is that it, you know, I wrote this in 2016. I sold it in 2017 and it was in 2018—keep in mind what I’ve already seen by now. I’m outraged over things that are going on after the election and the #MeToo movement and I’m sitting in an office where around me people are receiving calls about various rapes and I’m in the culture department! I think that the book came out at a time where we can have a final examination of how that was. That’s certainly how I felt when I was at GQ, that the only reason people really listened was because I was talking about—I felt like we all had a lot in common except for the fact that there would be a story about them because they were men.

Rumpus: I keep thinking about that both sides thing, that your narrator says maybe I’ll write that novel and I’m going to do it differently, it’s going to be both sides. The question now is, if your novel has gotten us to this point, which I do think it’s advanced us because you wrote it and because people are reading it and responding to it. But then the question is are we always going to also need to hear a man’s side to be able to care about and applaud a woman.

Brodesser-Akner: I’ll tell you this. I’m writing my second novel and it is narrated by a woman and it is the story of a family that has three sons. So you can look at that and you can say, oh look, she’s doing it again. But there’s no aspect of it that has a meta-commentary on it. Meaning, the narrator now exists to tell the story because the story is something that affects her, not because she’s Trojan-horsing herself into the story. The advancement of the second novel is that I’ve seen the way the world has changed right in front of me and she tells the story because that’s the story that interests her. And there’s not really a big gender part of it anymore and that must mean something, too. If you no longer have to tell that story, if you no longer have to explain why you’re telling the story, I think it’s a good thing. I think that’s advancement.

Rumpus: The last seventy-five pages of the book. There was such pleasure—there’s no other way to describe it. I felt like I was Daenerys Targaryen riding a dragon while he laid waste to King’s Landing. You were breathing fire and it kind of felt like it was coming from my own mouth, somehow. Was that part of the plan? Did you set out to do this feminist invective at the end or did you write your way into it?

Brodesser-Akner: No, I wrote the first ten pages and I wrote the last ten pages knowing that briefly the narrator would rear her head because she just could not stay quiet anymore. And not even in first person, but such a specific third person to make you understand that a character in this book was actually its narrator. She was just going to have the one stand. It was only in the second draft that the people who are important in my life who were reading this and my editor and my agent were like, do you want to examine this more? And then the last ten pages turned into the last thirty pages. The first version had the spirit of this but it did not have those things as explicitly. They were inferred and nobody was catching my inferences. But I do know that when people read those last ten pages, they were on fire for them. I’m hyperbolic and I’m a little bombastic in my writing and if someone says to me, “I like those ten pages,” I’m like, “Oh yeah, let me give you more of that.” So that’s how that went.

Rumpus: There was pleasure and also pain.

Brodesser-Akner: A lot of pain, right? But there’s pleasure in someone seeing your pain.

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Photograph of Taffy Brodesser-Akner by Erik Tanner.


Sara Fredman is a writer living in St. Louis. She holds a PhD in medieval English literature and is a prose editor for december magazine. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Tablet, and Lilith. More from this author →