Meghan Daum with Laurel Broughton at Elephant and Castle, March 21, 2001: NY, NY

A few days before the publication of her first book, My Misspent Youth, from Open City Books, I had a chance to talk with Meghan Daum about her move to Nebraska, writing, and Joan Didion. Laurel Broughton: Living in NY often feels like living in Balzac’s Paris, a world of heavy-handed cultural codes. Working in Soho it is often hard to tell the shop girls from their rich clientele who are buying the Versace dresses or whatever. In My Misspent Youth you touch on this topic in various ways. It seems like it played a large part in why you ended up moving to Nebraska. Do you think you’ve escaped this?
Meghan Daum: In a way I do feel like I have. I mean in NY I feel like there is no middle class. I guess for me and this is really hard to say without it getting misconstrued—I really felt I was not living any sort of. . . I was just living in a complete fantasy world. One that I couldn’t even keep up in any more. So really like the exotic thing would be to go to a place where middle class was quote unquote normal and just see how that would work out. I love NY and all my friends are here and it’s just an interesting place. It’s my home. I love it. It’s that typical thing in terms of being a writer, it’s distracting to be here. So yeah, I think that was part of it. Part of it was totally economic. I couldn’t afford to live her, and part of it was wanting to fix the economic problem by doing something that was so radical that it would have to shake the molecules a little. I thought about different places to live, and there are the obvious places people think about, you know, Austin or Seattle, or something.
LB: Right.
MD: But I guess I knew it would just be—I love NY so much that it would be devastating personally to do something that wasn’t totally radical. To change the situation completely. So that’s why I went there. I don’t know if I’ve really answered your question. The class system in NY I think unfortunately is you’re either really wealthy or you’re really poor. I don’t think that’s a good thing. And I’m sort of neither, I’m not really poor—that’s ridiculous. It was becoming really difficult to maintain any kind of moderate, middle existence. That’s kind of why. Nebraska is a place where the class structure is a little bit different, and I just don’t have that anxiety. I’m such an outsider that I don’t feel the need to be a part of any group there. That is probably the only way I can live in Nebraska. I am so weird there, there is no expectation really.

LB: To join the church group.
MD: Or even to be an academic. I’m not an academic and I’m not you know a factory worker or a political person.
LB: Or a mother.
MD: Yeah, I’m not married. I don’t 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, it’s a city? A small city?
MD: It’s 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. It’s 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 anyone’s toes. I didn’t 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 that’s 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 don’t think I’m in position to write about the land—I don’t 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 in—is it really possible to live wherever you want? Because that is something we talk about now in the culture—in commercials for wireless services. It’s been an experiment—it goes up and down.
LB: I guess we all like to believe in the light-out-for-the-territory type thing.
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 you’re not teaching there or anything?
MD: No. I taught at NYU for a few semesters when I was here. But no. Part of it is that I don’t have to now. I travel a lot so that would be hard. I wouldn’t 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 hadn’t been an NPR you would have moved out into the great abyss of America?
MD: You’re talking about in the piece, My Misspent Youth right?
LB: (nods)
MD: I like to use NPR as a symbol of upper middle class bourgeois trappings. Yeah, that’s just kind of a joke. I would have. But fortunately there is NPR, and people are obsessed with it in Nebraska. It’s 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 you’re talking about what defines an upper middle class intellectual person, you think wood floors and NPR and oriental rugs and all those things. I’m 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, I’m kidding and I’m not kidding. I’m 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, I’ve 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 they’ll be on.
LB: I think actually it was Christmas day and my mom had the radio on.
MD: They never tell me when they’re 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: That’s 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: I’ve done several magazine pieces about that, and you know, I’m 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 piece—as much as I can get away with that doesn’t make it just completely sappy.
LB: Or something that they’re not looking for.
MD: I see that as one kind of thing. I’m a working writer. I’m 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, it’s 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. I’m 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, prairie, sunset...
LB: Did Morning Edition contact you about doing the pieces or did you contact them?
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 something.
LB: And then how did you get hooked up with This American Life?
MD: Oh, kinda the same thing. I just approached them. I’d 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 haven’t 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 I’m going to get beyond myself and talk about something larger. Otherwise it is just not interesting. I really don’t 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 just easier.
LB: As far as writing goes, is journalism your primary focus, or is there something else?
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 shouldn’t 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 I’m 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 my fave.
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: I’ve actually never written a screenplay. I may have mentioned it. For a lot of writers it’s 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.
LB: Where?
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 didn’t 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... I’m 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 I’m still a New Yorker and I come back enough and I don’t feel weird being here or anything like that.
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? It’s in Vermont. It’s a Writers Conference that’s in August for two weeks. I think Robert Frost was one of the first originators of it . You just go and it’s beautiful. It’s near Middlebury College. You attend readings and discuss all things literary. But there is this hierarchy where, I guess, if you’ve published a book you can go for free and you’re a little celebrity. And then if you’ve published in magazines you can go and pay like five hundred dollars. And then if you’ve published nothing than you pay like fifteen hundred dollars. And then if you’re 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 thing—historically 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 I’m banned from the state of Vermont.
LB: I guess you definitely won’t 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 doesn’t 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 was—well 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 I’ve 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, that’s interesting. People don’t give that compliment or comparison very often.”
MD: Or everyday.
LB: How does that...
MD: Why? How? Yeah. I mean she’s influenced so many young writers, it’s 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 doesn’t give in to this emotive thing.
LB: She’s 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 don’t 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. She’s wearing huge sunglasses, has a bob, and the wind is blowing her hair, and she looks like she’s 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: She’s very sort of demure.
LB: Yeah, in a long floral skirt and little heels.
MD: Oh, is that what she was wearing? I couldn’t 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 can’t 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 don’t know. I tend to be sort of an aggressive writer, and I don’t 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 I’ve 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 that’s how you write a Joan Didion piece—You say airplane. It’s really weird. I wonder if she has some weird flying obsession because it is always that.