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So What Do You Do, Virginia Heffernan?

The newly ubiqitous cultural critic on her career, Tina and Harvey, and believing in synergy.

By Lizzie Skurnick - April 1, 2003

Two years ago, the only people who recognized Virginia Heffernan's name were those lucky enough to count her as an editor, friend, or colleague. But since then, she burst onto the scene with force, writing for little places like The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review. Best known to readers as Slate's prolific TV critic, she has worked as a fact-checker for The New Yorker, a writer at VH1, and an editor at Harper's, Talk, and Slate. She also holds a doctorate in English literature from Harvard, wrote the Emmy-nominated Matthew's Murder for MTV, and has been anthologized (with co-writer and former roommate Mike Albo) in the comedic-monologue collection Extreme Exposure.

Heffernan is part of that elite crew of writers other writers like to rave about (in public, at least). Columbia Journalism Review named her one of "Ten Young Editors to Watch;" Folio: dubbed her a "Rising Star;" and, in an unabashed paean, Suite 101 called her prose "dazzling!" But just who is this masked critic, and from whence came her poison pen? Heffernan talks to Lizzie Skurnick about Tina and Harvey, befriending the security guards, and being "the last, pathetic, and only believer in synergy."

Born: August 8, 1969
Hometown: Hanover, New Hampshire
First section of the Sunday Times she reads: The magazine

It's a monster, but go ahead and take me through all the stages of your career.
Well, that question assumes so much foresight, and I had none. I was disillusioned—not radically disillusioned, just a little disillusioned—with graduate school, and had decided to spend the summer in New York working at a bookstore—Chapter & Verse on St. Marks, which isn't there anymore. My now-friend Rob Boynton came in while I was reading Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, and struck up a conversation. I learned he was a journalist, and it was through him that I got the idea that it could be a profession. Simultaneously, I went to a party where someone said that a fact-checker had just been fired from The New Yorker. I basically ambulance-chased my way over and wrote a letter to the friend of a friend, David Kirkpatrick, who's now at the Times. It was like a form letter from career counseling—"Dear Mr. Kirkpatrick: I've been very interested in The New Yorker for a long time," etc. He still teases me about it endlessly.

So how was working at The New Yorker?
I just loved office life—little things like the guard saying, "Good morning, Virginia," or the receptionist having a "While You Were Out" slip for you. They didn't have room for me, so they put me in Janet Malcolm's office, which was incredible, sitting surrounded by her books. We just played pranks on each other all the time. Once, I was fact-checking a piece about an autistic cockney child who was an idiot-savant, and the number of other fact-checkers who left messages trying to simulate his voice numbered 10 or 11, for sure.

But you didn't stay.
I had this completely wrong idea that I could finish the teaching component of my program, come back to New York, do some get-rich-quick scheme, and finish my dissertation. But after I finished, I was just living in Brooklyn and trying to get things together. The last of the weird projects I took was this book by Michael Eisner called Work in Progress. It was just bizarre: I'd be in my apartment, where things were looking pretty shabby, talking to guys in St. Barts or at the Oscars. Then I saw the front-page announcement in the Times that Tina Brown was starting a new venture with Miramax. I wrote directly to Tina and said, I used to work under you as a fact-checker at The New Yorker and maybe you'd think about hiring me as a researcher or something.

Talk a little about Talk.
Harvey [Weinstein] was around, and Tina was around, and I really got to see how they conceived of general interest magazines—which were and are still sort of a perplexing proposition. Right before the launch, they promoted me to associate editor, which I think chiefly meant that I could go to the party on Liberty Island, but I couldn't bring a date. But that was better, because Paul Newman was there.

Was this your first editorial experience in a power position?
It felt like this baptism by fire—assigning stories, having to kill some, making these miscalculations, dealing with Miramax, closing, and making movie deals—it was a broad range of sudden experience. It was a weird time, but also really exhilarating. But then I had a conversation with Helen Dewitt in which she told me she'd worked at Taco Bell to finish her book [The Last Samurai]. And I thought, What am I doing? I've got to do my dissertation. I'd been in this corporate world for so long, and I came back to Earth a little.

You definitely mention your dissertation in all your bios from that period.
I always wanted to put that as the first thing I was doing. And it was kind of satisfying to go back to Ramen noodle-ish time. But I underestimated the amount of time it would take to get approval—about two years from when I left Talk to graduation—and I pretty much ran out of money. Around this time, a friend of mine asked if I would work with her on a documentary about Matthew Shepard she was doing for MTV, which only fanned my ridiculous enthusiasm for synergy. Afterwards, she recommended me for a job at VH1. I started to freelance for them, writing voice-overs for shows like VH1 Presents the 80's or 100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock & Roll—countdown shows. Eventually I went to work for them writing full-time.

And this led to your work for Slate?
Jacob Weisberg wanted someone who had written for television and would know something about how it was made. I wrote one column on Rosie O'Donnell and one on dating shows, and all the posters in The Fray called for my immediate resignation. I thought, "Okay, that's over." Meanwhile, Jake was like, "Bring it on!" Maddeningly, around this time, Harper's called and asked if I would apply for a job there. They couldn't have been more different from Slate and from VH1. It was a little bit chastening, because I had been in this very commercial world.

How did Lewis Lapham feel about you coming from that world?
I think he didn't really know what VH1 was. But he hosted Saturday Night Live once, so he's not a farmer or a homebody. I was watching TV and writing all night and at Harper's all day, and I was really strung out. I also wrote a piece for The New Yorker, and had failed to figure out that that was working for the competition. Essentially, I had to have a reckoning.

When did you leave Harper's?
October. I think I said, "With a heavy heart, I tender my resignation." And he said, "With a heavy heart, I accept." Very formal. It took a little while to adjust to freelancing again, but because of the war, Slate needed some editing, which I'm really happy to do—between Talk and Harper's, I've come to really love it. And I'm finally doing some features, getting over my lazy, critic-y, sit-in-my-house-and-stare-at-the-object-mode. I'm actually asking people questions.

Since the career came from out of the blue, how did you realize you had a knack for both writing and editing?
My confidence as an editor definitely preceded my confidence as a writer. Fact-checking at The New Yorker, you get to propose changes in order to accommodate new facts, and that sounds so small and silly, but sometimes they felt like really interesting puzzles. And at Talk, I did learn slowly about structure, but I've always thought I might want to be a copyeditor or a lexicographer—I've always liked the nuts and bolts part of it. All along, I had written slightly comic asides for Slate or Salon, but I definitely saw myself as a kind of behind-the-scenes person until Jake proposed the column. It was just such a vote of confidence, and I felt that I had to live up to it.

As a TV critic, what do you think of the war coverage?
This is a tough one. I've been a little unaffected by the TV coverage. It may be the steady stream of digital video—the two-box screens, or the very cluttered, text-heavy images. On the 24-hours news networks, I somehow feel like I'm not getting anything. I'm mute on the subject, actually—I haven't written about it yet because I haven't figured out yet what I think about it.

Here's a very yearbook-y question: What are your thoughts for the future?
I really, really like my work right now. If I could continue to do it, and learn how to be a better critic and a better reporter, I'd be very happy. But I think I'd stick with being a critic first.

What advice would you give to people who are slaving away at their boring day jobs and want to write or edit?
For writing, I'm a huge believer in the one-sentence emailed pitch to a senior editor. For example, someone once wrote me and said, What about a story on why we should not teach English literature? And I wrote back—I, at least, almost reflexively respond to interesting emails, way more than to mail and faxes. I guess my piece of advice is, never fax anything, because people share fax machines in hallways, and faxes just don't get through to others. On the editing side, I wish that copyediting didn't seem like—and wasn't—a dead end. I've relied on copy editors so many times, so just hanging out with the copy editors and asking them why they're making the decisions they do seems like an important step. Also, flexing your mind on how to come up with story ideas that are new and really suit the publication you're working for.

Do you think that can be learned, or that it's a talent?
I think it can be learned. If you're gutsy enough to ask to just sit in on a high-level meeting with editors, it's really interesting just to see what ideas get knocked down and why and to what things people say, "I've read that before." I think sometimes junior editors or associates will have a string of ideas that are really timely, but they're trying them without understanding the behind-the-scenes part. For instance, maybe they're really interested in some writer, but that writer's been declared persona non grata ten years before they even got there.

Do you think the good junior editors are the ones that start to pick up on the unseen rules?
I think that's a kind of intelligence and wit that you're born with, not taught—a sort of sixth sense about the magazine you're working for. Because magazines are really different, and a story that works one place doesn't work in another place. You can either feel that your sensibility lines up pretty well with the place where you're working, in which case it's what you think is a good idea is also a good idea for the magazine, or you can think, I have good ideas, but they're only good for The New Yorker.

Are there any magazines from the boomtime that you mourn?
Of course—Talk! The exuberance and dynamism that went into making was just indescribable. It was so sad—just like this hyperactive child that nobody wants to be around, but you had to root for it.

Speaking of which, are you looking forward to Tina Brown's show?
Yeah—I have a season pass to it on TiVo. But it was preempted because of the war.

Lizzie Skurnick is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.

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