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Q&A: Meghan Daum

The prolific freelancer on her new novel, her old essays, and comparisons to Joan Didion.

By Mike Scalise - May 30, 2003

From freelancer to essayist to novelist, Meghan Daum seems to have inadvertently walked into the "writer that defines a generation" role. Despite her best efforts, she managed to chronicle Generation X's quirky exploits to a T in her first essay collection, 2001's My Misspent Youth. Writing truthfully and hilariously about the hills and valleys of Gen-X's many cultural enclaves (online chatters, communal polyamorists, band geeks), Daum garnered the most attention for the book's title essay, a tale about her broken love affair with New York city and her subsequent move to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Two years later, she re-emerges with The Quality of Life Report, a fictional account of a New York reporter who, dejected, takes refuge in a small town in the Midwest. Though it may at first seem like a thin construct for autobiography, it quickly becomes a stark and (no surprise) hilarious send-up of media perception and a new twist on the old fish-out-of-water paradigm. Amid the bustle of her book tour, Daum spoke to from San Francisco about her new book, Joan Didion, and Always maxi pads.

Tell me about the new book.
It's about a television reporter named Lucinda Trout at one of these really cheesy morning-news talk shows in New York called New York Up Early. She is the lifestyle correspondent—who reports on really hard-hitting issues like thong underwear—and she comes up with all these gimmicks for her reports, like: "has sushi replaced sandwiches?" and "is 37 the new 26?" and "what happened to yogurt? It just went away. Nobody eats it anymore." She has this really tyrannical, bipolar, freakish boss, so basically Lucinda gets so run down that she's goes to this town called Prairie City—that she discovered while on another journalism assignment—to create a series for New York Up Early called the "Quality of Life Report," designed to tap into New Yorkers' escape fantasies. She's going to supposedly live this very simple, rural, idyllic life and report back to New Yorkers about how great it is. Inevitably, the more romantic she tries to make it seem the less romantic it becomes. In the meantime she meets an assortment of decidedly unsimple people in Prairie City. She ends up moving in with this guy named Mason, who's an eccentric, woodsman type, and things really just start to unravel shortly after that. Thematically, for me, it's a story about how she's kind of looking for this "authentic life," and being authentic, she finds, is really about messing up and making mistakes, in a way that she was unable to do in New York.

There are some themes that pop up in this novel that were also dealt with in My Misspent Youth. You mentioned in the preface to MMY that the undercurrent of the essays was a conflict of "what you thought would be" versus "what is." You revisit that theme in the novel, and I'm curious what avenues you were able to take with the novel that you weren't able to with the essays.
That's a good question. I think most writers have at least one or two themes that they keep circling around throughout their careers, and for me it is the idea of how the trappings of existing in the world kind of overwhelm your actual existence, and how aesthetics become the main concern of our lives, the way things look against the way things really are. What I wanted to do here was keep a couple balls in the air, and I saw the novel as the best way to do that. I was really interested in this idea of the whole simplicity movement, which was big few years back. Personally, I moved to Nebraska, and the things in this book that I took from my own experience had to do with being asked over and over again by different magazines to write about "my newfound simple life." I would write these things, and I was happy to do it, but I felt a little bit hypocritical because my life wasn't very simple at all. It's very complicated to change your life and try to uproot yourself and customize your life in that kind of way. I wanted to create a character who has a much more extreme and dramatic way of having that happen to her. So that was one thing I was working with. The second was a media critique, which I think this novel is.

Speaking of media critiques, you also seem to revisit that in both your essays and your fiction. As a media person yourself—you do a lot of freelancing—how does that impact your work?
I wanted to have a book that was set in the Midwest, to have a setting that would be rooted in a perception we see on television and in movies and certain books of the Midwestern, cowboy type. In the book, I don't think the characters are stereotypes at all; I was really careful as a journalist. When I was in New York, one of the reasons I left was because I found myself becoming one of those New York provincials in a certain way. The irony of the media and people in big cities is that they're charged with defining the entire culture, when in reality they don't even live in that culture. They live in such a rarified, tiny world. I always thought that whatever myself and my five best friends were thinking about was what everybody in the world was thinking about. It's a joke in the book, but I probably did think at one point that no one wore gold jewelry anymore. I was becoming one of those people. I certainly wasn't as bad as Lucinda or anybody in the book, but I think it's a real danger, and as a writer and as a person it was healthy for me to get out of that.

Your work also has this lament about the state of publishing and the media. What do you think of the current trend of these tell-all media books, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and the like?
That's a great title, and I did buy the book. I think whatever generation you're in has a nostalgia for the generations past and the generations you weren't in. I always lamented that I wasn't a writer during the late '60s and the early '70s, with the New Journalism and Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson and all those people. But I'm sure that they had their complaints that things weren't the way they were 30 years earlier, before them. So that's just part of being alive, is a kind of nostalgia for a past that you never knew.

It seems like a very "in" thing now to publish a tell-all book about you time spent at a beauty magazine or a men's magazine, or whatever. A lot of your writing has a similar sentiment, but it doesn't come across as spiteful.
I hope not. There are three steps in the essays—and this is why I make a really clear distinction in my work between memoir and essay; I'm an essayist not a memoirist. In the context of the essays, I'm not confessing, and I'm really never moved to write anything unless I felt that it would transcend my own experience in the culture and have a certain idea behind it. In "My Misspent Youth," that was of course my own experience, but I also think that a lot of people have similar feelings about New York. That might be why it resonated. But for me, in that essay I was just revisiting the same themes from The House of Mirth; it was an answer to Edith Wharton. It's more fun and challenging for me to try and operate on a bunch of different levels rather than just writing something like, "I walked into the offices of so-and-so magazine, and, boy, did I have the wrong skirt on."

It's funny you say that essay was an answer to Edith Wharton; a lot of people have said it closely resembles Joan Didion's "Goodbye to All That." How do you feel about being compared to Didion?
It's incredibly flattering. I think that a lot of young woman writers get compared to Joan Didion, almost in the same way that many young singer/songwriters get compared to Joni Mitchell. I think it's unavoidable. Joan Didion had a really original and unique voice, and in my mind what I take from her is the sound of her work; the rhythm and tonality of the way she writes. As far as content, she wrote a lot about politics, and many people get compared to her whose subject matter bears no resemblance to hers. I really think it's the tone. And I'm not the only one who gets compared to her. Joan Didion changed the sound of non-fiction, and that is a really important thing that's had a pretty expansive influence.

In "My Misspent Youth," you wrote that you had graduated in what was being called "the worst job market in 20 years." That was in 1992. A decade later, the prospects for hopeful media professionals are not that different. Any tips?
I always tell writers that it's good to have an area of expertise. Its' a really practical answer, I know, but know about science, or about sports, or about medicine so you can work as a science writer or a sports writer. Don't just know about yourself. And that's a very "do as I say, not as I do" answer. I wish that I had a deeper knowledge about more things; then I could be a nature writer or something. Unfortunately, I'm just so bad at everything else that I had to fall back on writing. And I worked so many temp jobs. I had some of the most hilarious gigs as a freelancer.

Like what?
I wrote for the Always maxi pad website. I did that for almost two years, I think. It didn't have anything to do with the product. They had a website, and they wanted it to be like a newsmagazine, so every month they had a feature like "getting in shape for the summer," or "mothers and daughters bonding." And one time they wanted an interview with a woman who was giving back to her community in a way that was related to the topic. So the best and most humiliating part of the job was that I would have to research somebody in some random city, like someone in Tampa who is doing free aerobics in the park or something, then call her and say, "Would you like to be featured on the Always maxi pad website?" And they always said yes. So I guess just hang in there is what I would tell people.

And the cheesy last question: What's the quality of life report for Meghan Daum?
It's good. It's great. I can't complain.

Mike Scalise is an editor and freelance writer living in Brooklyn. You can read an excerpt from The Quality of Life Report here.

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