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Q&A: Jeffrey Frank
The New Yorker senior editor talks about his new book, Bad Publicity, and gets down and dirty about D.C. politics.- January 30, 2004
Jeffrey Frank published his first novel when he was 22 years old and went on to an enviable nonfiction career on the staffs of some of the country's most distinguished publications. He's a senior editor at The New Yorker today, but he's still got the fiction bug. That first book, Creep, is long out of print, but Frank recently released his latest work of fiction, Bad Publicity, a satirical send-up of the Washington establishment. Bad Publicity follows in the path of his so-called "debut" novel The Columnist, which was published two years ago to critical acclaim: Both books skewer the politicking and bald-faced careerism that pose as conversation in the parlors of Georgetown and the back offices of Capitol Hill. Frank recently took a few moments to talk with mediabistro.com about working at The New Yorker, the writing process, and why Cleveland is a more interesting metropolis than Washington D.C.
Birthdate: Declined to answer.
Hometown: Washington D.C., but born in Baltimore.
First Section of the Sunday Times: Right now, I'm caught up in the election we're having, but otherwise I look at Week in Review or the Book Review.
So, how does one become an editor at The New Yorker?
I started out in journalism working at the old Washington Star before it went under. When the Star folded, I couldn't bear to go to the enemy Washington Post, so I took a job at the Buffalo Courier-Express. That paper ended up folding ten months later, so I took it as a sign and finally went to work at the Post, where I stayed for almost 12 years.
I came to New York because I had a call to work as an editor at Random House, but I really had no idea what the job was all about. I didn't understand publishing at the time. Certainly coming to New York seemed very appealing, but I think one should really never take a job one doesn't understand. So it didn't seem like it was going to work out. But I wanted to meet Harry Evans while I was there, and we got to talking, and after some time, the idea came up for me to work at The New Yorker, which his wife, Tina Brown, was editing. One of my oldest friends, David Remnick, was already working there, and it sort of evolved out of that.
It was a big leap of faith to come up here, since I had a sort of tenure at the Post, but it's worked out well. Editing nonfiction is like solving puzzles, and I enjoy it—and learn from it.
And you also edit the "Letter From Washington"?
Along with other things. I have edited the Washington correspondents' letters, and, most recently, I was Nick Lemann's editor. But Philip Gourevich is now going to be covering Washington and I'm not going to be editing him. I work with lots of different writers on a variety of subjects: I work with Calvin Tompkins, I work with Ken Auletta, so it's a whole range. It's pretty collegial here. It's not just one person doing one thing all the time.
But writing fiction has always been the thing I love most, and it's a completely different thing and different kind of energy. At the same time, I can't imagine not having an office job; it keeps me connected to the real world, the world that drives everyone slightly crazy. The truth of it is that most people need a job to focus you on what to write about. All the things that drive us most crazy about jobs, the paranoia, the backbiting, the worries, all of that is the fertile stuff that you end up writing about.
Are you a political junkie by nature?
Not really. I like the sport of it, though. I follow politics the way that people follow baseball, but I don't really love it as an end in itself. Some people say that I write political novels, but really they're not political at all. They're about the other stuff. They're about careerism and ambition and all of the things that surround politics.
What was your inspiration for Bad Publicity? Did you gather a lot of information for it while you were working in Washington in the '80s?
I wasn't even aware I was collecting it at the time, but I was constantly uncomfortable living and working in Washington. I was very happy working at the Washington Post, but the city itself was increasingly giving me the creeps, and I really wanted to find some way to get it down. How do you get down the fact that you go to a dinner with Washington people and you always leave feeling somewhat unclean? I was just trying to capture this odd place that was increasingly out of touch with the world, but increasingly doing mischief on the rest of the world and the rest of the country. It's a kind of toxic biosphere, but it's only since I left Washington that I really got a sense of how.
In the book you really skewer the Washington culture. How do your friends in Washington feel about that?
Most of my friends kind of like the portrayal I think, and they know I'm not writing about them. It's just a bizarre culture. In a way, it's hard to write about because it's got a sort of cliché built into everything about it. In that way, Washington lends itself to the genre novel, and it's sometimes hard to write about it in a fresh way.
How does this kind of Washington scene compare to its equivalent in New York?
The difference is that New York, to me, is more hopeful. It's like every hopeful impulse in the world is gathered in one place. I mean, of course we have all the awful careerism and ambition as well, but I have this sense that here people want each other to do well. Washington, by contrast, is a city where you sort of root for failure. The ultimate statement was from Vince Foster before he killed himself, where he wrote "It's a bloodsport out here." I mean, I enjoy Washington, but the conversation is so insular and so sharply focused on politics, and there's a lack of real culture. In some ways, a city like Cleveland is even more interesting than Washington, because there's more of a diversity of interests.
How do you balance your work as an editor with the books you're now writing on the side?
Basically, I write in the mornings. I tend to feel absolutely rotten in the morning, I feel like hell, but it's also my best time of the day for writing. All my life I've never been good at writing for more than a couple of hours straight anyway, and so I'll get a couple of hours down after I wake up and then go into the office.
Why did you set the book in 1987-1988? Did it have anything to do with the fact that it was the last time there was the kind of big loser candidate—Dukakis?
It was a very quiet time actually. It was more that quality than anything else. Nothing very much was happening and it was possible to look at the culture without too much in the way of distracting large events. There was no Vietnam or Lewinsky, and there was something almost comical about the time as well because for a while people actually thought Dukakis was going to win that election, so there really was a Dukakis administration starting to form that summer before the election. But it had all kinds of comic potential along with having a timelessness.
It's weird having the books out there—seeing how people react to them, how they read them, and what, sometimes, they make of me. Fiction is forever, people say, and these things will follow me in a way that a book about, say, the Bloomberg administration wouldn't. It's also weird to publish a book while working at The New Yorker, where lots of people publish lots of fine books. Those of us who wander around the twentieth floor at 4 Times Square sort of never talk about it, apart from a mumbled "How's it doing?" or "I saw that review in fill-in-the-blank." I sometimes think that the most important thing about a favorable Times review is that it spares you from having to slink around—not that my merciful colleagues would want me to slink.
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