To join the church group.
MD: Or even to be an academic. Im not an academic and Im not
you know a factory worker or a political person.
LB: Or a mother.
MD: Yeah, Im not married. I dont have kids which most people
do there. So that is a huge difference. I am very much on my own terms
and I feel very fortunate about that.
LB: So Lincoln, its a city? A small city?
MD: Its about two hundred thousand people. When I first moved there
I lived in the city, and now I live on a farm about six miles outside
the city. Its perfect because it is totally the country but I can
go to town everyday.
LB: Do you think the people see you as an interloper?
MD: I think sometimes. There is a certain anxiety in the Mid-West in particular
about the coasts. I am really careful not to step on anyones toes.
I didnt go to Nebraska to write about Nebraska. I went there to
live and I still write about the same things I always wrote about and
not that much has changed actually. I do these commentaries on NPR about
Nebraska and for whatever reason NPR needs to hire people who are not
from Nebraska to do this and thats unfortunate, but I spent a long
time trying to get on NPR. So little things like that it is conceivable
it could bother somebody. But people in Nebraska, they write about the
land and I dont think Im in position to write about the landI
dont know enough about that. That is their domain.
LB: Willa Cather.
MD: They do it better than I do. For me being there was more of an experiment
inis it really possible to live wherever you want? Because that
is something we talk about now in the culturein commercials for
wireless services. Its been an experimentit goes up and down.
LB: I guess we all like to believe in the light-out-for-the-territory
MD: There are certainly many people there who are great at writing about
nature and ecology. That is not something that I am really good at or
want to do right now.
LB: Do you have any contact? I mean youre not teaching there or
MD: No. I taught at NYU for a few semesters when I was here. But no. Part
of it is that I dont have to now. I travel a lot so that would be
hard. I wouldnt mind teaching. But my day is like this: I get up,
I take care of the animals a little bit, and then I sit there and talk
to all the same friends I always did in NY, and I e-mail the same people,
and I do the same work.
LB: Do you think that if there hadnt been an NPR you would have
moved out into the great abyss of America?
MD: Youre talking about in the piece, My Misspent Youth right?
MD: I like to use NPR as a symbol of upper middle class bourgeois trappings.
Yeah, thats just kind of a joke. I would have. But fortunately there
is NPR, and people are obsessed with it in Nebraska. Its funny because
for the book of all the things that I hope link all the essays together
is the way that we use items, objects, material things, and commercial
notions to express our identities. When youre talking about what
defines an upper middle class intellectual person, you think wood floors
and NPR and oriental rugs and all those things. Im winking when
I talk about those things. I think a lot of people take it literally and
those are the people who get upset and it is kind of amusing because,
obviously, Im kidding and Im not kidding. Im self-aware
enough to know not to not be friends with somebody if they have carpet.
LB: As far as your work that you do for NPR, Ive actually only heard
one piece. It was the deep-frying-a turkey piece.
MD: Oh the turkey fryer. I know they are hard to catch, and they never
tell me when theyll be on.
LB: I think actually it was Christmas day and my mom had the radio on.
MD: They never tell me when theyre going to be on so I miss half
of them too!
LB: Has writing about your experience of moving to Nebraska to be aired
on the radio justified it or made it more real, or less or more fictional?
MD: Thats an interesting question. The NPR stuff is an example of
the kinds of assignments that I get now from people who want me to paint
this romantic image of the prairie and this home on the prairie.
LB: They always advertise it as, Her New Home on the Prairie.
MD: Ive done several magazine pieces about that, and you know, Im
grateful for the work. They are for places like Real Simple Magazine and
The Oprah Magazine and they are about living on the farm. I am really
aware that there is something slightly hypocritical about putting forth
that image over and over again because it is sort of reductive and, well,
cheesy. I try to sort of do something in the pieceas much as I can
get away with that doesnt make it just completely sappy.
LB: Or something that theyre not looking for.
MD: I see that as one kind of thing. Im a working writer. Im
a very commercial writer in a lot of ways because that is how I make my
living. I see Nebraska as one category. The NPR stuff is in that category.
I like doing the NPR stuff because I love radio and I love that format.
I am hoping to balance that out with other stuff. I hope at some point
to address that disconnect, and I hope to get away with it at some point.
The word prairie, its just such a funny word. I love it but it is
like, you know, muff or something or tundra.
LB: Well, prairie definitely conjures up images of Laura Ingalls.
MD: Yeah, and I love those books and I would be the first to say that
I think the prairie is beautiful and there is a total fetish about it.
Im very cheesy about it myself in a certain way. But there are only
so many times you can talk about...
LB: How the grass rolls like the ocean?
MD: There are only so many adjectives you can use. There is rolling pasture,
LB: Did Morning Edition contact you about doing the pieces or did you
MD: It was Ira Glass of This American Life who told me that they were
looking for commentators. So he helped me set that up. I had sent them
LB: And then how did you get hooked up with This American Life?
MD: Oh, kinda the same thing. I just approached them. Id always
really liked the show and so on. They are a huge pleasure to work with.
LB: Where are they based?
MD: Chicago. I am just amazed at them. They have a really small staff
and they do that show every week, yet they are totally personable, and
fun. It is a really unique working experience to work with them. I havent
done a tremendous amount but when I do stuff for them it is very fun.
LB: It definitely seems like what they do connects to the subjects that
you write about. It seems that a lot of what you write about has to do
with being an American or living in this time.
MD: They take very subtle examples that illustrate larger phenomenon in
the culture, and that is really what I try to do. I know I write personal
essays, and I am often accused of solipsism, but I never sit down to write
a piece unless Im going to get beyond myself and talk about something
larger. Otherwise it is just not interesting. I really dont consider
myself a confessional. It is more using myself as a tool to discuss something
because I am closer at hand then somebody else. A lot of the time it is
LB: As far as writing goes, is journalism your primary focus, or is there
MD: It has been, but I am working on a novel right now, and that is really
new for me. I got my MFA at Columbia and I actually started out in the
writing division in the creative writing program. I started off doing
fiction, and then I switched to non-fiction mostly because I did a workshop
and I discovered the essay form. I just loved it. It really worked well
for me. I think in the essay you can accomplish so much. People sometimes
get afraid of that word and they shouldnt because it is so fun and
there is so much you can do with it. A stand-up comedy routine is an essay
as far as Im concerned. Some of the pieces in the book I consider
nothing more than stand-up comedy. As serious as an essay can be, it can
also be a riff which I think is valid. It has been a great form. I certainly
do a lot of reported pieces and regular journalism, but the essay is really
LB: You mentioned screenwriting a couple of times in the book?
MD: I did?
LB: Were you just throwing that out as an example?
MD: Ive actually never written a screenplay. I may have mentioned
it. For a lot of writers its kind of the only thing that we think
is ever gonna result in any money. I should try. It seems like everybody
wants to write a screenplay. There was a time when I wanted to do that.
I love movies. I wanted to be a film critic. And then I was a film critic
for a year or so.
MD: For the Manhattan Spirit Paper. The ones, you know, that sit piles
in the lobby. But it was so great because Ed Koch was the other reviewer.
So it was like whatever he didnt want to review, I got. He was the
Senior Critic. So then I would review the latest film from Iceland at
the Angelica. By the time the review came out in the paper, the movie
would have closed. It was hilarious, but I really enjoyed it.
LB: It sounds that way.
MD: They barely edited me so it was a great writing experience.
LB: As a kid did you always have your identity pegged as a writer?
MD: Yeah kind of... Im just really bad at everything else. I was
a musician. My family, they are all musicians and that was the main thing.
I played the oboe, as you may have read. That took up a lot of time and
everything was very musically based in our family. That was the intellectual
currency much more so than literature or art or anything like that . But
I always wrote. Even before I could write I would draw pictures and then
tell my mother what to write at the bottom.
LB: Oh, I did that too.
MD: I was always really determined to write and come to live in New York
City and be a writer and all this. Everything always was leading up to
that. The move to Nebraska was a sharp left turn, but I think in a way
organic to the process. I feel like Im still a New Yorker and I
come back enough and I dont feel weird being here or anything like
LB: Where did you have your first piece published?
MD: In the New York Times Book Review. I was really lucky.
LB: So you just submitted it to them?
MD: Yeah, it was like Dear Sir. I totally got lucky. It was a piece about
The Breadloaf Writers Conference. Do you know what that is? Its
in Vermont. Its a Writers Conference thats in August for two
weeks. I think Robert Frost was one of the first originators of it . You
just go and its beautiful. Its near Middlebury College. You
attend readings and discuss all things literary. But there is this hierarchy
where, I guess, if youve published a book you can go for free and
youre a little celebrity. And then if youve published in magazines
you can go and pay like five hundred dollars. And then if youve
published nothing than you pay like fifteen hundred dollars. And then
if youre in an MFA program and considered up-and-coming you can
apply and you can go for free, but you have to be a waiter and you wait
tables. But being a waiter is considered this prestigious thinghistorically
it has been. So I was a waiter, and it was really fun. I ended up writing
this satirical piece about it. I was in graduate school at the time and
my professor suggested I send it to the New York Times Book Review and
I did. And then they bought it. It was a pretty snarky piece indicative
of the fact that I was twenty-four at the time, and it ruffled a lot feathers.
And now Im banned from the state of Vermont.
LB: I guess you definitely wont be going back to the conference?
MD: No, I feel bad. There is no point in saying it now but I do feel a
bit bad about it because I actually did have a good time. It was really
lucky because everybody read it and I got an agent and started my career.
It just doesnt happen that way all the time. Then I went on and
wrote for Self. I had a column in Self Magazine for many years which waswell
I could pay the rent which was very fortunate.
LB: What type of topics did it cover?
MD: Oh, I had a humor column. I wrote about myself, whatever I wanted.
Now Ive written for lots and lots of magazines.
LB: I was perusing this book catalog the other day, reading all the little
blips about each book. I got to yours and it said something like, A
Joan Didion for the new millennium or something like that. Being
a fan of Joan Didion I immediately thought, Wow, thats interesting.
People dont give that compliment or comparison very often.
MD: Or everyday.
LB: How does that...
MD: Why? How? Yeah. I mean shes influenced so many young writers,
its kind of like saying all these singer-songwriters sound like
Joni Mitchell. I really admire her work. I think when I started writing
non-fiction, that was when I discovered her anyway. From the beginning
I would read her and say, Oh, so this is how you do this or this
is how you write this. She is totally unsentimental and manages
to convey emotions without being sappy. I hate categorizing her as a women
writer but I like the fact that she is a women and she is totally,
not caustic but doesnt give in to this emotive thing.
LB: Shes on her own terms.
MD: She manages to be vulnerable and be funny and be dramatic without
resorting to cheap means. That and the sound. Maybe it was more the sound
of her sentences. Because I grew up in this musical family I grew up with
everything being very ear related. So it might have been, I like the way
she sounds, and I want to sound this way. But I dont know what she
would think of the comparison. I shudder to think.
LB: I saw her speak at Barnard
MD: Oh, I saw that on C-Span actually.
LB: It was just packed with people. I guess the only image that I have
of her physically is from her book jackets.
MD: From like the early 70s?
LB: Yeah. Shes wearing huge sunglasses, has a bob, and the wind
is blowing her hair, and she looks like shes on the tarmac about
to board a plane.
MD: Yeah, always an airplane thing.
LB: I was really surprised that she was actually very small, and of course,
I know that she is not young but the way that she writes is so commanding
that to see this very small woman
MD: Shes very sort of demure.
LB: Yeah, in a long floral skirt and little heels.
MD: Oh, is that what she was wearing? I couldnt tell because I saw
it on C-Span. She wrote once that one of the reasons she has been successful
as a reporter is because people will talk to her because she is so physically
unintrusive. Her presence is so uncommanding, they just think she cant
possibly be a reporter because she is barely there. I guess it makes sense
that if you are very sort of fragile and soft spoken you would make up
for that in your writing. I dont know. I tend to be sort of an aggressive
writer, and I dont know if it is a compensation but in real life
I am always very concerned if I have insulted somebody. I just worry about
it all the time. It maybe just a function of worry about what Ive
already written and wanting to make up for it. It is so funny that you
mention the airplane and the tarmac because she makes mention of those
in every piece.
LB: Someone should do a concordance of her work.
MD: I am completely obsessed with airplanes. I think it started, well
part of it, because she [Didion] had always talked about airplanes. So
in my youth, in my early early development, I thought thats how
you write a Joan Didion pieceYou say airplane. Its really
weird. I wonder if she has some weird flying obsession because it is always