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So What Do You Do, Tad Friend, Staff Writer, The New Yorker?

The Brooklyn-based writer on in-depth interviews, drunk celebrities, and world domination

By Julie Haire - April 9, 2008
Though New Yorker writer Tad Friend files the "Letter from California" from Brooklyn Heights, it is his gift for being able to knowingly capture a time and place that led editor David Remnick to tap him for the job in 2002. From San Quentin's Death Row and televised car chases in Los Angeles to suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge and the inner workings at William Morris, Friend gets in there in a way that makes you think, "How did he do that?"

Friend grew up in Buffalo, NY and Swarthmore, PA (his father was the president of the college), went to Harvard and got a job at Steve Brill's The American Lawyer out of school. Next came stints at Spy, Esquire, Vogue, New York, and Outside, before landing at The New Yorker in 1998.

One of Friend's most resonant pieces for The New Yorker was "The Playhouse," an intimate look at his mother, Elizabeth Pierson Friend. Out of that came the idea to write a book for Little, Brown on his family and WASPs, with a focus on the themes of ambivalence and dissatisfaction. Now Friend is in the middle of his year-long book leave, which gives him more time with his 18-month-old twins and for pursuing his plans for world domination.

Name: Tad Friend
Position: Staff writer
Publication: The New Yorker
Education: "Some"
Hometown: Buffalo, New York
First job: Reporter, The American Lawyer
Previous three jobs: Contributing editor to Outside; editor-at-large at New York; contributing editor to Esquire
Birthdate: September 25, 1962
Marital status: Married, two children.
Favorite TV show: American Idol
Last book read: The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz
Most interesting media story right now: Coverage of the Times' story on John McCain and the lobbyist
First section of your Sunday paper: A1
Guilty pleasure: The Wire

What's your typical day like?
It varies a lot, depending on whether I'm reporting or writing. I cover California for the magazine, so if I'm out there reporting, I'll spend about 10 hours a day reporting, either hanging around with the person I'm writing about or driving around to conduct interviews. For a longer, 8- to 10,000-word story, I usually fly out from Brooklyn two or three times; the last piece I did, about executions at San Quentin prison, I went out three times across the course of nine months. The writing part has changed since my wife and I had twins 18 months ago. I used to just write monotonously all day and night long for 10 days in a row and then turn something in. Now there's a lot more time where I have to be -- and am happy to be -- taking care of our kids, so it's harder to find the uninterrupted swaths of time I need to make real headway. Some people write by polishing each sentence as they go, like a jeweler. I tend to spend lots of time painstakingly making an outline that I realize, a dozen paragraphs in, makes no sense, and then I put my head down and type nouns and verbs and quotes in a kind of grumpy blur, hammering out an extremely rough, totally un-publishable draft that I then go over and over and over before I hand it in.

Do you tape interviews or take notes?
I carry a recorder with me, always, but I mostly take notes, particularly if I'm spending days and days with someone. I tape if I'm only going to be seeing someone once or twice, or when a number of people are talking at once -- a meeting, for instance -- or if someone has an idiosyncratic vernacular.

How do you write that fast?
If someone says a number of interesting things in a row, and I'm falling behind, I'll say something like, "I'm sorry, but your brain is faster than my hand. Can you hold on a second while I catch up?" But most of the time it's not a problem, because not everything people tell you is a candidate for inclusion in the piece, and you start writing only during the periods when the "this is interesting" bell is ringing in your head.

How many people do you typically interview for a profile?
For a long piece, I probably have 60 to 100 conversations.

Are you serious? Wow. And a lot of that is just background -- people you're not even going to quote?
Yeah, a lot of it. I over-report so that I feel confident, when I sit down to write, that I know what I'm talking about. That confidence may be misplaced, of course, but I need to feel it. We have a bit of a luxury at The New Yorker in that you can take some time -- two to three months -- with certain kinds of stories and try to be authoritative.

How do you figure out who to talk to?
At the end of an interview, I always say, "Who else should I talk to?" And then they tell you two people and then those people tell you two people, and at a certain point everyone's telling you the same people you've already talked to and you think, "OK, I've kind of got it." Or everyone's telling you things you already know, which is comforting. You could probably write a profile that's three-quarters as good about two weeks in, but I like the feeling of knowing more, of giving myself more choices and collecting the little nuance-y details that encourage the reader to relax and trust you as a guide and companion. There is also the possibility that I'm just neurotic.

And I imagine probably some of the interviews you do are probably a complete wash -- you talk to some people and they really don't give you anything interesting.
When I was spending time at San Quentin, I talked to a number of correctional officers who weren't that helpful because they either didn't want to be that helpful or didn't know how to be. They're trained in their job not to talk to anyone, really, particularly to the inmates -- if they reveal any personal details to inmates, it's an offense called "overfamiliarity." So I'd have to talk to them for hours before they'd give you much beyond, "Officer Johnson, C block, Sir!"

That leads me to another question, which is what happens when you're talking with someone who's either boring or rambling or evasive -- do you have certain tricks you use to get them to open up, or is it just by nature of hanging in there?
I sure hope that person isn't a profile subject, because there would have to be an incredibly compelling, Jack-Bauer-lives-are-at-stake reason to spend all that time with someone who is deeply boring. I try not to profile someone who I'm going to be bored by because that would be deadly for me and probably not fair to them because I wouldn't be doing my best to figure them out. And it wouldn't be any picnic for the reader, either.

For a secondary source, you can always use what seems to me the classic way of shutting down an interview: "Is there anything else I should have asked you?" Usually people say no because they can't think of anything; they're not used to being asked to think like an interviewer, suddenly. And then you're done. But it's also a good question to ask at the end of a useful interview, because sometimes people will say, "Well, actually we never talked about Bob's childhood and how he reacted to coming down with polio," which you never knew about. So it works both ways.

Getting past the guardians [of celebrities] is part of the challenge, and once you do that you can start to tell a real story about what someone actually does.

Do you feel that you're a good interviewer?
Um, I do, actually, though it feels unseemly to say so. Mostly, being a good interviewer consists of keeping your mouth shut and really paying attention to what people are saying, while asking an occasional clarifying question. It's the same thing therapists do, not to compare journalists to therapists lest I get a stern letter from Janet Malcolm.

More theoretically, in a longer profile, the interview process with a subject often changes about halfway through the reporting. I think of it as a pivot point. In the first half, people tell you what they want to tell you about their lives: the authorized, resume version. And it's not that you're sitting there waiting to go, "Gotcha!" or expose them as a fraud, but the truth is that most of our friends, let alone our enemies, don't see us the way we see ourselves. So you talk to a lot of other people around the subject and they tell you things that they don't necessarily know they're not supposed to tell you, or just stories and insights they have. And then when you go back to the subject and discuss some of those things -- well, the pivot comes when the person you're writing about realizes, not always consciously, that you know a lot more about them then they thought you were going to know. And then they begin saying, "What Larry told you only makes sense if you understand these following three things," and suddenly they begin to enlist you, trying to tell you the full backdrop so you'll have the context necessary to understand why they did what they did. So they often go from not wanting to tell you too much to wanting you to know everything.

What's the pitching or assigning process at like at The New Yorker -- do you come to them with ideas or they assign them?
I would say of the last 10 long stories I've done, probably nine of them have been my ideas. And I think most writers will tell you they're happier working on a story that's their own idea because they're passionate about it and convinced it's going to work -- and because they're not trying to simply service someone else's concept, one that the reporting may not bear out. The New Yorker editors are wide-ranging and culturally omnivorous and they have lots of very good ideas, but for me it seems to work out well to pursue my own hobbyhorses. Of course, I have to convince the editors of the value of my story idea before I start to work.

When you're dealing with the entertainment industry, because you cover that a lot, I would imagine the subjects are notoriously image-focused and media-savvy. Can you tell me if you've had a really challenging interview -- is it hard to get people to open up and be real?
Behind-the-scenes entertainment stories often take much more time than any other kind of story because the people you need to speak to are very busy, usually have big egos, and almost always erect sizeable barriers to entry -- if you want two minutes with the guy who played Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter you have to go through his publicist and then you've got to send a fax or an email saying why you want to talk to them, and the publicist may or may not get back to you three weeks later. It's a very complicated, annoying, time-consuming process, and it helps to explain why many of the stories written about the entertainment industry are fairly puffy, or else conversely are just shock video of Britney Spears yelling at the cops. Getting past the guardians is part of the challenge of it, and once you do that you can start to tell a real story about what someone actually does -- as opposed to a celebrity "profile" that consists of six questions over coffee at Peet's.

As to a really hard interview: I did a piece a couple years ago about an agent at William Morris. He was great, but I also had a number of conversations with the powerful and cagey former agent Mike Ovitz. There was a lot of slaloming on and off the record because he was very knowing about how it all works and he kept saying he just wanted to talk to me so I would be smarter, which is a big Hollywood thing you hear, you know, "I'll talk to you out of the goodness of my heart, but I make it a policy not to be on the record," which is sometimes more or less true but often means, "I want to find out what you know and how I'm going to look, and then steer you in a direction that will be useful to me." So this was all followed by at least four subsequent conversations in which I tried to pull him back on the record on certain points, which he finally agreed to -- and then he would call me from the ski slope or late at night when I was trying to have dinner with my wife seeking to take his remarks back off the record, and I would end up saying, "Mike, Mike, you're being crazy -- Mike, do you not have a life? Would you like me to try to find someone for you to talk to about some of these issues?" Because we both kind of saw the humor of it even as we were playing out this bafflingly intense, low-stakes chess game.

And speaking of Britney Spears, what's your take on the current media culture, specifically entertainment coverage, like all the video and the paparazzi and insane intrusiveness of it all?
It makes my job harder because people in the entertainment industry feel routinely violated by the press -- by a wing of the press that I don't happen to associate myself with -- but nonetheless by the press. A half-century ago, when Lillian Ross wrote a great piece for The New Yorker about the making of The Red Badge of Courage, directed by John Huston, my sense is she was able to go out to Hollywood, tell them what she wanted to do, and start doing it. That is, she could hang around endlessly, spend all this time with the stars, the director, the producers, and the studio executives and no one was worried about it -- indeed, they were flattered by the attention. Because no one had really been doing that before, no one thought it was that interesting. And so she could do that and write a wonderful piece that became the book Picture and there were no publicists constantly holding her hand, and no one was worried about her taking a cell phone video of John Huston drunk that would end up on TMZ.

Writer Vanessa Grigoriadis has said that since you wrote that Dave Wirtschafter [president of William Morris Agency] profile she's gotten resistance when she tries to do Hollywood stories because people are a lot more wary. When you were doing that story, did you have any idea it would be controversial?
It seems to be there's always a little two-day kerfuffle when a Hollywood piece comes out, so I thought it would just be that. And I hoped readers would like the piece, because I was proud of it. I was surprised the reaction got as big as it did, simply because Dave committed the sin of being candid about the box-office power of some of the stars who were represented by William Morris -- information that everyone in Los Angeles knew, and that the stars themselves knew, though they may not have wanted to hear it to their faces. I thought it was interesting how divergent the reactions were. People who were not in LA who read the piece usually told me something like, "Dave Wirtschafter is a great agent. I'd love to have him represent me." People in the entertainment industry in LA who read it said, "I can't believe Dave would talk to a reporter."

I know people at William Morris urged Dave to do the classic thing and blame the reporter, that is, me, saying that he was misquoted or this and that conversation was off the record, because a couple of clients ultimately did leave William Morris -- partly because other agencies made it their business to wave the red flag in front of the bull and try to cherry-pick clients [and] inflame the situation, which is what agencies do every day, anyway. And Dave said, "No, I said all that stuff. Maybe I shouldn't have, but I totally did that," which I thought was a stand-up, menschy thing of him to do. As far as consequences, when I've gone back to Hollywood since then, people sometimes joke about it, saying "Why should I talk to you?" But I think I have a reputation for being fair and not screwing people over, and these things do eventually blow over. Vanessa Grigoriadis seems to still be working, and so am I.

To what extent do you keep in touch with subjects or sources -- do you have relationships with them? And I'm not even talking about notable people, just regular people you've covered.
Yeah, quite often we stay in touch. I go back to people, particularly sources who I think are knowledgeable, and some of them in the entertainment industry have been helpful on a number of different stories. As far as subjects of profiles, I'm not friends with any of them, but I've certainly stayed in touch with some of them. The ones who felt like the story was not entirely positive may be less inclined to stay in touch.

Do you hear from them in those instances -- do you get a call or a nasty email?
I've never gotten a really nasty call or a really nasty email from someone because I believe in no surprises. I feel like it's dishonest to have spent all this time with someone and write something where they have no idea you were going to say X or mention Y. If there's some bombshell that someone else told me about the subject, it's my duty to check it out with the subject to get his or her response, which alerts them that it's going to be in the piece. And I make sure they know about the difficult stuff, both because of the no-surprises rule and because I want and need to get their response to it. And we also have a very thoroughgoing fact-checking process that goes over everything for the third or fourth time. So I think people can read about themselves and feel like there's more emphasis on X than they would have hoped or even than they personally may feel is justified, but I've never had anyone complain about being totally submarined.

Since you've been on book leave, have there been stories you've seen or news developments you really wish you could have tackled, that you were sorry you missed out on?
Since I've been on book leave, I've actually kind of kept my head down. I was relieved not to have had to write about the writers strike because I couldn't figure out a way to make that interesting: "What's it like being a writer who now has all this time to check email, here at Starbucks?" When I'm normally working, I'm reading a lot of papers online, the various Bees, Sacramento and Fresno, and the Chronicle and the LA Times and a couple other California sources, so I have a little more input tickling me and making me wonder about stuff, but I've actually not been doing that since I've been on leave.

What's your typical day like in terms of media consumption?
The papers I mentioned earlier. I read The New York Times -- in an actual papyrus version. I guess I check out Romenesko like everyone else. I watch Jon Stewart sometimes, because it's the only filter through which I can stand to see video of George Bush.

You're an old pro, but do you still have embarrassing moments -- I was going to say when your recorder doesn't work, although you take notes -- or getting someone's name wrong during an interview?
I was writing a feature about police pursuits in Los Angeles and how people watch them on TV. I was talking to a head of a local news channel and he said, "You should talk to so-and-so" -- he's the guy who came up with idea for America's Most Wanted. And he was reading from his Rolodex, and he said, "Linder Michael -- call him." And so I called the number and asked for Linder Michael, and kept calling him Linder when we met, and when he gave me his card at the end of the interview I realized that his name was Michael Linder. In other words, "Linder, comma, Michael." I guess he thought it was some stuffy last-name-only thing I did, but he was very nice about it.

You're married to New York Times journalist Amanda Hesser -- do you read each other's work, bounce ideas off each other? [Editor's note: Hesser left the Times after this interview was conducted.]
We do. It's all part of our plan for world domination.

How's that coming?
Not as well as we would have hoped. We haven't really expanded our empire beyond Brooklyn Heights. But, yeah, we read each other's stuff before anyone else does, and it's very helpful to me to have her read a draft and tell me, "I don't understand what's going on in this part," or "you could cut this whole section that you worked on for so long." I think it's fortunate that while we work in the same general field, we're not in the same area. She's on book leave now too, but when she's at the Times, she writes many shorter things and I write fewer longer things. And she writes about food and I don't. So we're not direct competitors, and there's none of that "Get out of my way" feeling of striving for priority, which would probably be deadly.

Among journalists, writers and bloggers, who do you admire?
In the department of ass-covering-but-genuine log-rolling, I like the work of a lot of my colleagues at The New Yorker. Mark Leibovich at the Times is funny and deft. Ditto Jennifer Steinhauer, who actually set up Amanda and me on our first date. In Hollywood, I think Lynn Hirschberg can be very knowing about the internal forces that an actor has to struggle with. Online, Nikki Finke has been very good on the writers strike. And Michael Cieply has been a real addition to the Times Hollywood coverage. But lately I've been reading a lot of books, with particular admiration for writers such as J. Anthony Lukas and Rian Malan who can gracefully weave together a complex narrative.

Do you rely on any certain tools in your work? I know people are really passionate about their chair or their notebook.
I'm weirdly addicted to my blue medium-point Paper Mate pens. Not so much for their line as for the fact that I like to chew them. It would be great if they gave me an endorsement deal and sent them over by the crate, since I chew them out of usefulness pretty quickly. I'm not doing it in public and grossing people out, but when I'm writing, that's my little tic or oral need, chewing pens to ribbons. I have a sofa in my home office where I write with a laptop on my lap while listening to bad 70s music. Having "Chevy Van" or "Afternoon Delight" blaring in my ears as I write really helps because I've heard them so many times, I don't really hear them, but they keep the bad things out of my head.

That's interesting because a lot of people need complete quiet.
There's two camps of people: There's the fire-watcher-on-a-mountain-top camp and the drowner-outers. And I'm firmly with the drowner-outers.

Julie Haire is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

[The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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