Similar to last week's episode, because of the length of this episode, the essay and transcript are in separate posts. There is no charge for the transcript posts, please don't worry about the numerous notificatons. DRIP has a limit to how many characters can appear in each post, and the length of this podcast meant we needed to break it up into three parts! I hope you enjoy this episode.
THE INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT PART I
Debbie Millman: Pamela Paul is the editor of "The New York Times" book review and oversees all the book coverage at the paper. She also hosts the Times' podcast, "The Book Review." That in and of itself would provide plenty of subjects for an interview, but there's more.
Paul is also the author of a series of provocative books about family life in contemporary culture. She started with, "The Start of Marriage and The Future of Matrimony." Next came, "Pornified ‑‑ How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families."
Then, she wrote, "Parenting, Inc. ‑‑ How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers."
Her latest is something of a departure, but it too has an eye‑catching title and lengthy subtitle. It's called, "My Life with Bob ‑‑ Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues." "Bob" is what she calls the journal she has kept for 28 years about the books she has read. My Life with Bob is a book about book.
Pamela Paul, welcome to "Design Matters."
Pamela Paul: Thanks for having me.
Debbie: Pamela, you recently gave up your electric toothbrush. There was nothing wrong with it. It was an upscale model, and when you used it, you felt certain that your teeth were not only getting cleaner and whiter but were also perhaps even better aligned. What made you decide to go back to your lowly, old‑timey toothbrush instead?
Pamela: I think like many people, I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with technology. Actually, maybe not all people. There are those people who are the early adopters, full steam ahead, don't question anything. Those are people who I can't relate to at all.
For me, as my work has become much more digital and technophilic, and it has to and it should, I've off‑set it ‑‑ it's like carbon offsets ‑‑ by weeding out unnecessary technology from my personal life. The toothbrush is a kind of obvious and seemingly low‑tech example.
Just in that small way of not having yet another buzzy, loud noise in my ear every morning, it felt like I'm actually involved in the process of brushing my teeth. I do think now, having been off the electric toothbrush for almost, I guess, about eight months, that my teeth in fact may be cleaner after all.
Pamela: I'm the one that's doing it, not a battery‑operated apparatus. I just read a book actually. It, in a way, is a kind of design book, and Michael Bierut from Pentagram reviewed it for us on the cover. It was called "CrÊft' by Alexander Langlands.
It's really about how we have lost touch in our highly technological, digital world with the way in which things are created and made, and how that process, and how we're involved in that process and how important that is. I found it very persuasive. I found myself wanting to start thatching roofs, and building brooms, and that kind of thing.
Debbie: I recently dropped my electric toothbrush, and as a result, it no longer works. I've been using it as a regular toothbrush. Now I'm actually thinking maybe I should just keep using it as a regular toothbrush to see if there's...
Pamela: It's like a halfway house.
Debbie: Exactly. It's a migration back to my lowly toothbrush again.
Pamela, your mother named you after what is considered the first English novel, Samuel Richardson's "Pamela" published in 1740, and you grew up in a house built in 1673. That was your town's first library I believe. It's almost too perfect. It's almost like your literary destiny was set out before you.
Pamela: There's always the negative side of that. I didn't know about Shamela when my mom named me that, but I found out later on.
Debbie: [laughs] The parody? Fielding's wonderful parody.
Pamela: Yeah. Said that Pamela's one of the great annoying characters of literature. In fact, I think that that character influenced the baby name dictionary that was the most popular when I was growing up.
I remember looking my name up in that dictionary, and under Pamela when it said what the meaning was, other names had these great meanings like Beatrice, bringer of joy. Pamela, it said selfish one. I thought really.
Debbie: Oh, my goodness.
Pamela: Yes. I think that probably came out of Richardson's book.
The house that I grew up in had been the town's first library. It was no longer functioning in that capacity when I lived in it. It was an old and crumbly house. The Hessians had slept in our den during the Revolutionary War. My house had been a captain of the Navy's house.
For me growing up, it was a kind of terrifying environment because it was so old and crumbly that there were parts of it that were off limits. One of those parts was the attic that, when I was growing up, and I weirdly grew up in a book‑deprived environment. I was persuaded that hidden upstairs in the attic were all of these books and also, Archie comics ‑‑ only the Betty and Veronicas, none of the bad Jugheads. It was all up in the inaccessible...
Debbie: Why? Why was it inaccessible?
Pamela: Oh, it wasn't. It wasn't. This was all in my fantasy. No, but I believed that all of the treasures of the house were somehow hidden from me.
Debbie: Betty and Veronica. I grew up on Betty/Veronica as well.
Pamela: Yes, but never the Jugheads.
Debbie: Jughead just didn't interest me. He was too goofy and schlumpy. I understand the very first book your parents gave you was called "The Pocket Book." Can you take us back to that moment and what you thought and felt about it, and how old were you?
Pamela: I must have been about three or four. The Pocket Book is the kind of book that, now that things are made cheaply in China, every kid has 20 of them.
Back then, it was and it was something truly extraordinary and special, because it wasn't made out of cardboard. It was made out of fabric, plush fabric, and sewn together, and on each page was a different kind of pocket, like a snap and a button and a zipper. There wasn't velcro back then, but each one, you could actually open up and I wanted to crawl inside.
The weird post‑note to that story, the postscript, is that I did look for The Pocket Book online. I did turn to Dr. Google and say, "I want to see this wonderful, treasured, bespoke object that I loved so much as a child," and i could never find it.
Finally, someone hearing me talk about it at a reading last year, I think in Cambridge, said, "I know that book, I had that book, and I'm going to send you a picture from my house."
Much to my chagrin, when the picture arrived, I did recognize it, but it was something like "The Fisher‑Price Pocket Book for Girls," and there was a boy version. It was this horrible branded, gendered, commercial thing in reality. My memory had just completely changed it into this beautiful hand‑sewn thing made by gnomes in a magical forest somewhere. It wasn't that.
Debbie: Wouldn't it be wonderful if all of our memories could be like that? Just to recreate a situation to make it the most perfect possible thing?
Pamela: When I was working on the book, I very purposefully didn't Google anything. I didn't Google anything. The only thing I looked for where I did buy in certain cases where I no longer had the original copy of the books that I was writing about.
I wanted to find the actual edition, because part of what is so important to me about books is their physical aspect ‑‑ the cover and the smell of the glue and the pages and the stalk and all of that. I needed to find those particular editions where I didn't have them.
I didn't Google other things. I write about in the book how I had lived in Thailand in 1993‑'94. I had not been back to Thailand. I went very briefly in '97, and just in that interval of three years, the town had gone from three 7‑Elevens to I think 15.
After that, I thought, "I don't want to know what's going to happen here development‑wise, even though I know some of it is positive, etc." I wanted to preserve in my head the image of how it was.
Even when my memory failed me and I might not have remembered the name of this particular restaurant or that in writing my book, I didn't want to Google it, because I thought "Those new images are going to mess with my memory of how things were."
Debbie: You grew up with seven brothers and said that anytime you showed female traits, you were mocked. Where were you in the birth order of your siblings?
Pamela: I had two what we would call real brothers. I was a middle child. Then I had five stepbrothers from two different marriages. They were stuck on either side. I was a middle child in all respects.
Again, people would say, when they heard that I was the only girl that that must have been something special, and I must have been spoiled and cared for and protected. Really, it was nothing of the sort.
My brothers would, yes, mock any aspect of femininity. I grew up really believing that in order to be respected and liked, you couldn't be feminine at all, and that if I did anything out of line, I could at any moment be grabbed and thrown to the ground. The favored method of torture was to pin someone down ‑‑ me ‑‑ pin me down and drool over me.
Debbie: Oh, goobers.
Pamela: A huge gob of saliva and just let it hang over me, knowing that it was going to at any moment fall over my face. Yeah, it was awesome. It was a sweet childhood.
Debbie: Oh, my goodness. [laughs] Your grandfather was a meat market owner. Your father was a construction contractor and your mom is an author, copywriter and was the editor of "Retail Ad World." Was she your biggest influence growing up?
Pamela: Yeah. I descended from royalty, as you can tell. The thing about my mom is that she was an advertising copywriter for most of her career. She was a Peggy. She entered into New York advertising that same year that Madmen began, I think it was 1962.
What she did was, to me, kind of miraculous in that she would get a client, let's say, Chiquita Banana, and she would come home and have to write these like tag lines and brainstorm 20 of them in quick succession, and she was very good at it.
It be like, "It's banana appeal," and things like that, these pun‑y kind of things. I thought that was incredibly fun, but mostly she worked very hard, and I grew up in an environment where you never would consider not working as a girl or as a woman.
Debbie: You've written that as a kid, you bombed at art, ice skating, soccer and ballet, but you excelled at reading, and that this was at a time you've described as one where kids were supposed to be outside playing.
And in My Life With Bobby, you stayed at school. "I walked around in a state of perpetual embarrassment certain others could sniff out something different about me." Did you feel like a misfit?
Pamela: I was really shy. I was incredibly, incredibly shy, and I remember, I would, in moments of deep shyness, just go and sort of hide in the closet, and the worst fear was to have someone sort of discover you in there, wallowing in your own shyness.
I remember there was a moment I moved to a new town, when I was in second grade, and I remember standing outside at recess one day by myself. It's one of those memories, again, that in my memory, it's like everyone is laughing and having tons of fun around me.
Then there's like this sort of circle that in my immediate vicinity, like this periphery around me, that's like a do not enter zone where it's like people were told almost like, "Do not go into the circle where that girl is."
I remember someone broke through the barrier and came up to me and said, "The flood is over," and ran away. It was years later that I understood what that meant which is that I was wearing you know hand‑me‑ downs from my brothers and they were too short.
What you would say to someone is, "The flood's over." I didn't get that memo because I wasn't part of like the mocking crowd. I was part of the mocked crowd. There's something so especially painful about being made fun of for something that you don't even know what it is that you're being made fun of.
So that it's like this double thing because you realize that you have been shamed, and you don't actually know what you did wrong.
Debbie: Yeah, I remember a girl coming up to me in junior high school and I was wearing a pink skirt that I'd made. My mother was a seamstress so she taught me how to sew when I was very young. I made this pink skirt and I wore a green blouse with it.
At one point and Nella Williams came up to me and said, "You know you should be wearing a slip with that skirt." I didn't even know what she was talking about but I realized it was because the green blouse was coming through the pink skirt, and everybody could see it. I was ashamed and horrified. [laughs]
Pamela: It's funny and like things like clothes, like signifiers that you don't know when you're little, I remember later on, things got better and then they got worse. They got the worst in the fifth grade when these two girls, Karla and Maryann, decided that they would set the entire grade against me.
Pamela: Yeah, it was terrible.
Pamela: There was a good reason. I had dated Maryann's fifth grade boyfriend in fourth grade, and by dated, I want to say like we exchanged some notes and locker, and each other's lockers, and like maybe went to ice cream once.
This was considered like a serious relationship at that age, and I had had the audacity to date him in fourth grade and Maryann was dating him in fifth grade. They set the entire grade against me, and it lasted the entire year. It was terrible.
On the very last day of school, Maryann came up to me and said, "I'm very sorry. I would like to be friends now." In sixth grade, we were in the same class and we got the shirts that said "best friends forever" on the front, matching shirts, Pam on one sleeve and Maryann on the other and that was the end of that.
Debbie: You forgave her and became best friends?
Pamela: Yeah, wasn't that...What a win.
Debbie: That's very openhearted view.
Pamela: Or totally cowardly. One or the other.
Debbie: I think I'm going to stick with the open heart. You've written that families seemed better inside books, and cited books like All of a Kind Family and Little Women as examples. I actually did the same thing. I wished that I could be Nancy Drew because of how close she was with her father.
They seemed to have such a good relationship, and I was terrified of mine. Were you a Nancy Drew fan?
Pamela: I was. I was a Nancy Drew fan, of course Bess and George, her best friends, and she always had her boyfriend who was ever helpful. With the Nancy Drew books I was very particular. That was actually, those were the books that I really first became aware of the book as an object and very particular about the kind of book that I wanted.
The kind that I wanted with those, and Nancy Drew fan listeners will know what I'm talking about here, there were the very old ones which had a plain, dark navy blue cloth bound cover, undecorated. Those were no good. Then there were the modern sort of reinterpretations which had a kind of high gloss cover.
Those also were no good. The kind you needed, I needed, but everyone really should have had were these yellow bound...
Debbie: Thank God.
Pamela: ...right, with the painted.
Debbie: I thought we were going to have a fight right here on the podcast. Thank God, you said that.
Pamela: I think, I feel like it's universally accepted at this point. They had these great paintings on the cover and these old timey illustrations inside, and they smelled fantastic. I had to have those, and the only way to get those at that time was to buy them used.
There was this used bookstore in town and I would save up my money and go up there, and ask if they had any used Nancy Drew's, and see if they had the right one.
Debbie: I still have mine, the ones that I had when I was a kid.
Pamela: I still have mine too.
Debbie: I treasure them. Growing up, you were quite industrial. You babysat, you worked at a bakery, you glued catalogs together at a South American import warehouse, you folded sweaters at a store, and you worked at a restaurant where you also quit eating red meat after venturing into that restaurants meat locker.
Then when you got your driver's license, you retained your dream job, a position at B. Dalton bookstore in a mall. Was that when you knew for sure that you wanted a life in books?
Pamela: Books were always just a part of my life. I never even considered like that it was a choice to want a life in books. It was just I wanted to be as close to and as immersed in them as I could. I had tried early on to get a job at my local public library, and asked repeatedly, and they never had jobs for me.
I think like they had like a note in there, employee manual, that was like "The girl who is here every day, like do not engage."
Pamela: I told them they didn't have to pay me, but they wanted nothing to do with me. B. Dalton was fantastic, and it didn't pay very well either. I think it was minimum wage at the time, and they gave you it was either a 5 percent or 10 percent discount on books as employees.
Nowadays, as I understand it from people who work in bookstores, employers are generally more generous. At that time, it was very stingy. I could be near them. I could smell them. I could re‑shelve them. I could know about them. I could assess what I thought the literary world was. I couldn't necessarily buy them.
A lot of this intensive labor was...I felt the need to be financially independent from a very young age. It was my way of being like, "I am out of this narrative. I'm going to propel myself somewhere else."
I loved working at B. Dalton. I loved being surrounded by these books. What I liked most is that I felt like books were a way, a signifier, or an interpretation of the larger world. I could tell by what books were on the shelves...That gave me a read on the rest of the world.
Debbie: At the time, you've written about how Andy Warhol was your literary guide. You obsessively read anything about or endorsed by him. In fact, you once spotted him browsing the hip Fiorucci store in New York City. I understand you shadowed him for 45 minutes, prolonging what you deemed the moment art became real. What did he buy?
Pamela: He didn't buy anything. When I met some people who were Andy adjacent or knew him, and I told this story, they were like, "Yeah, that sounds right." He just picked up everything, oohed and aahed over it. He was with someone and talked about it. He would put it back down.
My best friend Erica and I were probably the only two people on the planet who appointment watched this very short‑lived Andy Warhol TV show on MTV called "Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes." They had authors on there. They had Tama Janowitz. They had that '80s...
Pamela: Yeah, that whole hip '80s scene of writers. Andy would blurb books. I just thought he was the go‑to person. It's so funny the way you misinterpret the larger world when you're young. That's what I thought. He was like art and literature and New York City.
Debbie: I understand you were also a dancer in a Nile Rodgers video. Tell us about that.
Pamela: Oh, my God! Is that in my book?
Debbie: I have all sorts of ways of finding things out. [laughs]
Pamela: You have all kinds of sources. Yes, I was an extra in a Nile Rodgers video. That was my moment of glory and fame. I had a friend who, at the time, had dated a number of musicians. There was a period where I got to interact a little bit with them. My best friend's uncle was the lead singer of the band Kiss.
Pamela: [laughs] It was an odd...
Debbie: You said that so nonchalantly.
Pamela: I know...
Debbie: It's a big deal.
Pamela: It was just the situation at the time. He would come to school plays when she starred in them. It would just be like, "Oh, there is Paul Stanley." To me, he was Stan, Stanley.
Debbie: That's so cool.
Pamela: There were these little adjacencies to fame. That how I indirectly...through this friend who knew Nile at the time. It was in the '80s. He had just produced "Love Shack," The B‑52s' album. He was producing an unknown artist at the time, Terri Gonzalez. I can't remember how I ended up getting to do it.
Debbie: That was my question. Which one? Because I was watching...I was trying to find you and see which one like, "Where is it? I couldn't find it."
Pamela: There ended up being a legal battle over that album. I know it was released. I have a physical copy of the vinyl record. The video was aired a number of times. Something happened. It was fun. I had my big scene with Erica seeing Nile as I walked into a party.
Debbie: Wow! OK, I'll still keep looking.
Pamela: I wore a very terrible outfit. It was a little, teeny top, a long, tight skirt, and a fully exposed midriff.
Debbie: It sounds very '80s.
Pamela: Just like the Madonna period.
Debbie: Absolutely. Neon‑green, pink, that kind of thing.
Pamela: It was turquoise.
Pamela: My hair was big.
Debbie: [laughs] Now you studied history at Brown University. Why history?
Pamela: I thought I was going to be an English major. I ended up not taking any writing classes at all. I took literature classes. I was always interested in history. I was the only probably sophomore high school girl in my town who joined the History Book Club.
You remember this? It was like Columbia House but the Book of the Month Club, where you would get 11 books for a penny in your first installment. I still have those books.
Debbie: I did that with records.
Pamela: See? That's the dorky girl I was. I found the writing scene at Brown very intimidating. Also, all the good writing classes there ‑‑ there were so many inspiring writers ‑‑ were hard to get into. They were often at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. At that period of my life, I had made it a general policy not to take a class that started before 10:00 AM.
I just got really excited about history. I had a brief moment where I thought I wanted to get a doctorate in history. I ended up talking to my adviser about that. He said, "You look like the kind of girl who wants to live in New York." I said, "Well," disappointed that he could read me so easily.
He said, "Let me tell you this. If you go and you get a doctorate in history, if you are lucky enough to actually get a job, here's what's going to happen. You're going to end up being tens of thousands of dollars in debt. You're going to end up not at Brown University, not at NYU, and not at Columbia because there are no jobs in history."
Also, the area of history I was interested in was a well‑trodden area. I was really interested in the world war periods and in the interwar years. I wasn't interested in anything especially sexy. I didn't look at it from a post‑structuralist view or a Marxist perspective.
He said, "You're going to end up at the University of Iowa, not even the main campus. You're going to end up in some teeny, little town in the middle of nowhere. If that's OK with you and that's the path you want to pursue, go for it." That was that.
Debbie: Sounds encouraging. [laughs]
Pamela: Yeah, that was super‑encouraging. I do have friends who ended up getting their PhDs and getting positions. A lot of people have told that story, too, and said, "You know what? He really did you a kindness there." It didn't end up all that bad. I'm happy he discouraged me. That's my retirement plan, a PhD in history.
Debbie: In your senior year of college, you walked out midway through a job interview with Quaker Oats. Tell us that story.
Pamela: You know when you have those outer‑body experiences where you're on the outside and you see yourself? I was looking at myself from the ceiling. What I was saying in this interview was, "I really like Cap'n Crunch cereal, but I only like it with the Crunch Berries because you need that tartness to offset the overwhelming sweetness of the foundation cereal."
I realized I was answering a question that the interviewer was asking me. What he was asking me was, "Why do you want to work at Quaker Oats?" He interrupted me. He said, "Many of us here at Quaker Oats enjoy our Cap'n Crunch line of cereal. Really, why do you want to work at Quaker Oats?"
It was at that moment I realized like, "I don't want to work at Quaker Oats. Oh, my God! Is this why I have been studying for four years, why I've read all these books, why I tried so hard in high school? Is this the path that I'm meant to follow?" It was not. [laughs]
I said, "You know what? You're right. I don't want to work at Quaker Oats. I'm sorry to have wasted your time." I left.
Debbie: That's an incredibly brave thing to have done.
Pamela: Brave or chicken? [laughs]
Debbie: No. It would have been really easy to just go through the interview and then just say, "Never again." To actually take a stand for yourself in that moment just feels so poetic, epic.
Pamela: I'm a really bad liar. It's a part of it. Once I realized that I didn't want to work there, I felt like I couldn't get through the rest of that interview in a way that...I just couldn't do it. I just would've interrupted myself. I couldn't pretend that I really wanted to work there.
I felt like that's why I left my body at that moment, because I was having trouble articulating something that felt true. It is true that I only like Cap'n Crunch with Crunch Berries. That remains true.
Debbie: Don't you have to have a lot of milk and let it soak for a bit so it doesn't scrape the roof of your mouth?
Pamela: It is scrappy. Not to get too detailed here, but I do have raisin bran. You have to wait until it's mushed. I like it on the crunchy side. It doesn't need those Crunch Berries. That much was true. I felt sincere. I realized, when he asked that follow‑up question, I really couldn't answer in a truthful way.
Debbie: What did you think at that point you wanted to do with the rest of your life?
Pamela: I have gone into college, thinking...I knew at heart, I wanted to be a writer. That, you couldn't articulate because that was just too big and too grandiose. To say, "I am a writer," it always felt almost embarrassing.
It's worse than French, where you have to say [French] . There's no article even to make it...It's just like saying, "I am a poet," or, "I am a philosopher." It seemed too grand. I couldn't do that. I thought, "I'll be book adjacent."
I thought I would work in either advertising like my mother, coming up with fun things to write, or I would work in publishing. I would be in the arena but not on stage.
When I was graduating, I was still looking at those two things. I thought, "Wait a minute. How is it that in these four years in which I've supposedly been exposed to the entire world of knowledge ‑‑ I have traveled all throughout Europe ‑‑ that I am coming back ‑‑ and studied abroad ‑‑ to these same two answers that I had going in?"
I had been influenced by this book that I had been flirting with. I hadn't bought it yet because it was expensive. It was at the College Hill Bookstore in Providence, called, "A Journey of One's Own, Uncommon Thoughts for the Independent Woman Traveler," by a woman named Thalia Zepatos that was published in 1991.
It was a travel book about this woman who had just done all these brave, really unconventional travel adventures. She had ridden camels and donkeys and swam across channels and just done these amazing things that I never would do and I didn't want to do. In fact, I thought I couldn't do and I would hate doing them.
I kept being drawn back to this book and wanting to read about it because it felt so other. I had this realization that maybe these things that I think that I don't want to do or can't do or shouldn't do are options that I'm closing off at a very young age as possibilities for myself.
If I'm wanting to leave college four years later, wanting to do the same thing I wanted to do going in, maybe I've been looking at a really small set of options. Maybe I've been looking at A through D. I haven't explored what E through Z is. Maybe I should try something in that E to Z.
When I walked out of that interview with Quaker Oats, I went directly to the bookstore. I bought that book. Shortly thereafter, I decided that I should do something that Thalia Zepatos would do. I should do something that essentially challenged every assumption that I've made up in my life up into that point, down to the nitty‑gritty.
I wanted to do something where every morning, I couldn't go about my day following the same plan or ticking off the, "I read the paper. I had my coffee. I went to the gym." I wanted to be able to do none of that.
Then on a larger scale, I wanted to go somewhere where I didn't speak the language, where I didn't have a job, or friends, or contacts, or somewhere where I'd be ethnic minority, religious minority. Really be set out to sea so that I would have to explore the things that I thought I couldn't do.
I ended up buying a one‑way ticket to Northern Thailand and moved there after college.
Debbie: You taught English, French, and history at schools part‑time. I believe you also trained in a Thai massage school.
Debbie: You do give a good Thai massage.
Pamela: I do give a good Thai massage. The funny thing about a Thai massage, and of course now it's available here in the States, but they do a watered‑down version. The kind of version that I did and the kind that I got every week when I lived there was a three‑and‑a‑half‑hour massage. It cost eight dollars. It was a three‑and‑a‑half‑hour massage, eight dollars.
One might think that's an awfully long time to lie there being massaged. Wouldn't you get bored? The answer is no. I felt like that was a meditative state for me. I would get massaged for three‑and‑a‑half hours.
I had a motorcycle there. I would get on the motorcycle, almost felt like it was jeopardizing my life and the lives of others to then drive the 45 minutes back to this food orchard where I lived, because my body was just jelly.
Yeah, I went to a massage school. It's hard. It's actually physically hard. Some people say Thai massage is like giving yoga to someone else. It's a full‑body thing where you're walking, and pulling, and standing on someone. It feels awfully good when it's being done to you.
Debbie: Why did you leave?
Pamela: Thailand or the...?
Pamela: I left Thailand because I was teaching at school, and in order to stay at that school, I had to make a two‑year commitment, and I didn't want to commit that much, because part of what moving abroad was for me was to not plan. It was to throw that plan away and to challenge myself with not knowing what was next.
I was fine with having a job and being committed to doing it as well as I could, but the idea of having a contract and knowing that I'd be there for a set duration, I didn't find appealing.
Then I went on a trip to China for six weeks on my own, and I set out these really strict parameters for that trip, some of it of necessity. I was on a budget of $15 a day, which even at that time was not a lot of money, so that I was sometimes sleeping on concrete slabs. It was a tough trip.
I was traveling mostly in Xinjiang Province in the far west, between Kashgar and Xi'an and following that length of the Silk Road. No one there, let alone speak Mandarin, they often spoke Uighur or another dialect that was more Arabic in its origin, a sort of Ural‑Altaic language and written in Arabic script.
They didn't speak the language. They didn't even know out there that there was a form of currency called FEC, I think Foreign Exchange Currency, that foreigners used to have to use in China. They had got rid of it and they were allowing foreigners to use the Yuan. They weren't told that in the distant provinces. I often couldn't even buy things. They would not accept my money.
Debbie: You had to buy your father a spittoon, didn't you on that trip?
Pamela: Yeah. He cut a deal with me. He was obsessed with China and with the last temple of that movie in particular [inaudible 34:11] and all that. He said, "I'll give you $1,000 to help finance your trip to China, but you have to bring me back a spittoon." I said, "Fine."
I didn't know what a spittoon was. I had an image of...I don't know. I thought it was a long tube you spat through. I did I got this idea, I don't know.
Debbie: It's real big, right?
Pamela: No. A spittoon is not that at all. A spittoon is like a jug, a thing you spit into, but I thought it was a thing, I was picturing when little kids in school take a wad of spat‑on paper and put it [inaudible 34:45] spit it across.
Debbie: Oh, a spitball?
Pamela: Spitball. I was thinking...
Debbie: I was imagining one of those things where you spit a spear out at an animal.
Pamela: Yeah. Who knows what a spittoon is? You wouldn't know if you weren't...Anyway, every time I saw a long object, like a sword‑like thing, or a flute, or whatever, I'd say, "Is this a spittoon?" and everyone shook their head at me. I didn't come back with a spittoon.
I didn't realize what it was. There was no Google then. I was travelling in those pre‑Internet days. It's a very different kind of thing. You'd be completely unplugged.
Debbie: No Google Map, transition.
Pamela: No. I didn't have a phone, obviously. I didn't have a phone car. There was no such thing. I was six weeks without almost saying a word to anyone.
Debbie: Wow. You moved back to New York and started working in marketing before getting a job at Scholastic and then Time, Inc. You were thrilled and figured you'd be working on topics such as World War II, but instead found yourself working on the "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit calendar.
Pamela: Yeah. I had worked in a job that was half marketing and half editorial at Scholastic. I loved working there. I loved being in that world of children's books. I had taken that job because it was an educational children's publisher.
That was pre‑Harry Potter. That was the "Goosebumps," "Babysitter's Club" era of Scholastic. I went to Time, Inc. thinking I wanted to get a job in the grown‑up world. I was part of a division that would create books based on the magazines at Time, Inc.
I imagined putting together these beautiful, photographic histories of World War II from "Life" magazine. Instead, I was put on the SI team and was selling calendars. Not just that, they were sold at that time, the law, this is now legal, but through sweepstakes.
It was the kind of thing where you were selling people this horrible calendar and selling it to them when they didn't even want it. They were only buying it because they thought they'd won like $50 billion in a sweepstakes. It's not the most rewarding job.
Debbie: You started freelancing for publications such as "The Economist." It was at this time that you've stated that you lost reading. You then came back to it via the first book you were ever assigned to review. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Pamela: I had been writing a column for The Economist on global arts trends. I had started writing some pieces on film, and on theatre, and reported a little bit, and also reviews, but I'd never written a book review. I wanted to, but it felt like a higher step.
I got assigned a book to review for The Economist. It's funny, because after I wrote that first book review and handed in to my editor, up until that point, I'd never gotten anything but very positive feedback. I handed in and he said, "Oh, dear. Let me show you how to write a book review."
Now he actually writes book reviews for me, so it's all ended very nicely. He did show me how to write a book review.
Debbie: [laughs] Around that time you took a class at The New School on writing personal essays, and you were still working in marketing. In many ways, that class led to your first book, "The Starter Marriage" in 2002. How did that come about?
Pamela: What happened was after my marriage ended, I felt like what had happened was swirling around in my head. You get to a point where you think, "My friends have heard this 20,000 times, and it's not helping me to talk to them. It's not getting it out of my head." I thought what I need to do is actually write it out of my head.
I didn't want to publish anything. I wanted it just to be for me. I took a class at night, and I knew I wouldn't know anyone in this class. It was taught by Lucy [inaudible 38:46] . It was about personal essay writing. I just wrote about what had happened for me, and I didn't read it aloud in class or anything like that, but it was to get it out of my system.
When I ended up writing my first book, "The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony," I very deliberately set out to write a book that was not about me. In fact, I only used the first person in the first two paragraphs. I think the first line, "Before I got divorced, I got married forever."
I discussed the wedding very briefly and generally, but I didn't want to be in that book. I wanted it be a reported book about what I discovered was not an experience special to me but was something a lot of people my age were going through at that time, this kind of marriages that only lasted for a short period, usually five years or less, and didn't have kids.
What is that significance of that early mistake or experience, whether you regret it or not. What I did was I went out and I interviewed other people. I found that dealing with my story in that way ended up actually being the most helpful thing of all, because it got me out of my own head.
Writing my own story on the page didn't get work. Talking to friends about it didn't work. What actually worked was stopping thinking about myself so much and then start interviewing other people who had gone through a similar experience and hearing about their stories.
I started reporting that book only a few months after I split up with my then husband. That ended up becoming The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony.
Debbie: That was a really helpful book to me as well. I had a starter marriage.
Pamela: Ah, one of us.
Debbie: Yes, absolutely. You married your current husband aboard a yacht called The Princess. In 2004, "The New York Times" piece on your wedding noted that on your first date with him, you were reluctant to tell him your full name and what your book that you had written was about. What was it like when he found out what the first book was about?
Pamela: He was fine, otherwise I wouldn't have married him.
Debbie: Yes, it's true.
Pamela: It's funny hearing that. I think that was from my wedding announcement in The Times. We ended up getting married on a boat, one of those boats that goes around Manhattan, by accident. We were in the process on closing on a house in Harlem we had gotten. Bought a townhouse, and as often happens when you buy real estate, it doesn't exactly go by the calendar that you set out.
We had set the wedding day and sent out the invitations and then realized, oh my God, we haven't even clothes, the deal. We hadn't even finalized the contract.
My in‑laws had planned a rehearsal dinner on this boat, and they thought it'd be really nice for all the people from out of town to be able to see Manhattan while we had the rehearsal dinner. We couldn't think of any other option at that late point, so we said, "Can we steal your rehearsal dinner idea and you can find something else?"
They very kindly complied, so we stole the rehearsal dinner for our wedding.
Debbie: After your first child was born, you got an invitation to write a review for "The New York Times Book Review." It was on "The Lady and the Panda." You did the review.
After your second child was born, you got another invitation and did another. Later, a friend asked if you knew anyone who would be interested in being the children's book editor of The New York Times, and on vacation, you had an epiphany. Can you tell us what that was about?
Pamela: Yeah. I had been working from home for nine years. I had three children during that period. I had written three books. I was very happy I could work in my pajamas all day. I never wanted to work in an office again.
I had been writing for the book reviews, doing freelance assignments for them for a number of years, and was friendly with the then editor, Sam Tanenhaus. He asked me for advice on who to be the next children's book editor. It's a really, first of all, a fantastic job. That's the only job that I think can possibly compete for me with the one that I have now.
It's actually a very specific kind of role. You need to be a journalist, and you need to be an editor, and you need to be a critic, but you need to understand children. You need to have an understanding a little bit of education, and you really also need to have an appreciation of art, because there's so much illustration in children's books.
That's a set of qualifications that's difficult to find. I tried to suggest some people to him. I didn't have any expertise in children's books other than having worked at Scholastic and, at that point, having kids and loving those books myself.
I named all these people but none of them were quite the right fit. He interviewed various people. I was out in LA. I was on my way to a bookstore that was also an art gallery called Every Picture Tells a Story that had original illustrations as well as picture books.
I would always go out there when I was in LA to visit my in‑laws. I wanted to go. I was in the car with my husband. I was trying to figure out their schedule, how could I go without the kids.
The kids would just distract me, because they would want me to read books to them and show them. I really wanted to have time by myself looking through all their amazing resource of illustrations, and possibly buy something.
I then just realized, "If I care this much about children's books and children's illustrations, maybe I should consider being the children's books editor." Before I could change my mind, I sent of one of those impulsive emails, where I was, "Maybe if you could make this thing part‑time, I would consider applying." Then three weeks later, I was working at The New York Times.
It was great. It was very accidental. After I took the job, I thought, "Oh, no, what have I done?" It meant I had to buy clothing.
Debbie: No more pajamas.
Pamela: No more working in my pajamas. It's like I went from one really great job to another great job, and it was a change of environment. I've been thrilled being there since then.
Interview transcript continued in the next post!