Interview with Tad Friend, Staff Writer for The New Yorker
A staff writer for the New Yorker since 1998, Tad Friend writes the magazine’s “Letter from California.” His coverage of Silicon Valley includes portraits of Elon Musk, Marc Andreessen, and Sam Altman; his Hollywood profiles include Donald Glover, Anna Faris, and Ben Stiller. His story “The Harriet the Spy Club,” about a group of Las Vegas women who turn detective to figure out if the dentist they all dated had killed his wife, is being adapted as a film by Nia Vardalos. His story “Thicker Than Water,” about a Nantucket sailing captain searching the ocean off the island for his capsized son, is being developed as a film by Andrew McCarthy. His story “Jumpers,” about people who commit suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge, inspired the Sleater-Kinney song “Jumpers” and was turned into the documentary film The Bridge. His memoir, Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor, was chosen as one of the year’s best books by The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, and NPR. He is adapting it as a television series for Imagine Entertainment.
The Politic: In classic Terry Gross fashion, the first thing I’ll say is: tell me a little bit about yourself.
Tad Friend: Is that what she says? Is that a vague question to get me going in a particular direction? Well, I live in Brooklyn, I have a wife and two kids — they’re 12, twins — I’ve been working at the New Yorker for 20 years, and I cover California. Politics, crime, Hollywood, Silicon Valley — a whole range of topics, which is kind of great. It’s nice to have a geographic beat as opposed to a subject beat, it keeps everything fresh. I play a lot of squash, I drink a lot of coffee. That’s a good start.
I’m from Texas, so I actually had never heard of squash until I came up here [laughing].
It’s a very fierce, small, tribal world among squash players, I would say. You see the same people over and over, particularly if you’re playing tournaments for older people. You see the same battle-scarred faces with knee bruises showing up every year.
When did you start playing squash, and what really drew you to it?
When I was a kid. I really picked it up again when I turned 50– I started trying to get better at it when my body was telling me the opposite, of course.
So, I’ve read some of your writing, and it’s very dense — there’s lots of detail involved. You must have a rather immersive reporting process, right? How would you describe your reporting process?
The chief virtue of working at the New Yorker is that we have such a long time frame for magazine stories. If you’re working on an article for the website, it involves churning at a faster output and reacting to the most recent thing Trump said. For the magazine, oftentimes for a really long story, I may spend four, five months reporting. Then, I’m a really slow writer, so I’ll spend a month writing, trying to corral it all.
I guess I have a strength, or weakness, where I feel like I can’t start writing until I know what I’m talking about — not just 80 percent, but feel like I’m totally confident in being able to assert something. So, some of my stories may take a tad longer than a smarter, faster person would take with them, but I need that confidence, that sense of understanding.
My favorite kinds of stories are the ones where you’re writing about a person at the center of an activity that’s at the center of a larger world. For example, a few years ago, I wrote about Marc Andreesen, who’s a venture capitalist. So, I wrote about him, and about venture capitalism, and also the culture of Silicon Valley, like these sort of Russian nesting dolls. The downside is, you have to learn all these different worlds. The first week, I had no idea what was going on. There was this series of acronyms and jargon and shorthand and assumptions that I was just mystified by. I said, “you know, I’m a quick study, and next time you talk to me, I’ll be smarter, but can you slow down, please?”
But, a lot of the immersion you’ve asked about is — I tell people ahead of time that I’m going to be around a lot — literally being around a lot. Eventually, if you’re around long enough, people relax their guard a little bit. Not that you’re trying to get them to let go of their guard and expose the underbelly, but you get a picture of who that person really is, as opposed to what they project.
Do you ever actively try to get people to trust you, or is it something that seems to happen organically?
I don’t think of it as active — I never think I’m going to seduce them with my incredible stare. My hope is, and I think it usually works out, that if you listen to people carefully, and you don’t say too much, but you listen to them and ask them a question that shows that you’ve really been listening to them and thinking about what they said — that, in itself, is appealing to people. It makes people feel like you’re taking them seriously, and people like to be taken seriously, and deserve to be taken seriously.
I tell people in the beginning that this is a mutual act of trust. You trust that I am going to tell this accurately, and I trust that you are going to be open about who you are. We’re both committing a fair amount of time, and I’m probably committing more time than you are, because I’m studying and learning about this new world. Most of the time, they’re doing what they’re going to be doing, anyway.
There are always a few people a year, who are often actors, that are so used to getting a 45-minute cup of coffee for a profile that they get sort of weirded out once they realize that you’re still around, and they ask, “Why are you still here?” And, you hope that you’re not sufficiently annoying in that they’d want to get rid of you.
Has anyone ever been upset with something you’ve written, after the fact? How did you handle that situation?
It’s tricky — you don’t necessarily want people to love love love the story, because then, it might not be quite removed enough. When you start to write, you kind of have to pull back. But you try not to make errors, and you try to be fair.
Maybe I’ve just become hardened, or maybe I’ve become better at it, but there were times when I was younger and thought, “This person has a fair complaint. I made a mistake, I should have called so-and-so, and I didn’t.” If that person wrote a letter, that letter should be printed. But, there’s also times when people complain — at the New Yorker we call it “source remorse” — and what they said was fact-checked, they acknowledged that they said it, and they didn’t fully realize that it was going to be in print, and they contact us about it. It’s a fairly common complaint — it’s a little dance.
But it is tricky — I wrote a piece recently on Gavin Newsom, and people reacted in different ways to it. Some people thought this piece seemed to talk about his process and his insecurities, and that is so rare for a politician. That’s what I thought. Other people said, “Oh, politicians have figured it all out by now, they shouldn’t be sophomores in high school just figuring life out, unsure of who they are. That’s yucky and I don’t like it.” That’s not what I thought. But some people did feel that way, and you can see why politicians don’t expose, because you can put something out there and then get attacked for it. My goal was not to [write a story] that would make people think, “Oh, I shouldn’t vote for this guy,” or “He’s a jerk,” but “Oh, this is actually someone who’s wrestling with himself and he has issues, as we all do, and as he should.” You know, I like Gavin.
There was an interesting moment in that piece when Gavin says that you might make a cute inference about the Tesla in his driveway, and in the next sentence, you say something about making three inferences.
His point was that I was going to say that he was some rich dude, who hangs out with tech bros, since he had a Tesla in the driveway. But if you have three Teslas in the driveway — he might have escaped it if there were one, but there were three. He was trying to preclude me noticing that by making a joke about it. If he were to say something like, “Please don’t write about my child’s ex,” I totally wouldn’t write about it. But if it’s like, dude, you have three Teslas in the driveway, I think that’s fair.
That was a really great nugget of information — I read it and wondered how you choose which nuggets of information stick.
It’s a totally inexact process that I wish I had an algorithm for. It would make everything so much easier. I’m looking forward to the day when there’s AI that can write a shitty version of the story that I can then fix up. Here’s the thing that takes the nuggets, sorts them, and gives me the 85 nuggets that are good , and throws out the 500 that are bad.
It’s totally according to what kind of story you’re trying to tell — you don’t even know that until you write a bad draft, four or five bad drafts, and then you figure it out. There was a cool meeting where Gavin had the NAACP leaders in Sacramento that had some great stuff in it, which ended up not fitting at all into the flow of the story. I thought it would make it, I wrote the scene and was happy with it, and realized that it actually didn’t flow, so I couldn’t use it. Maybe if the story were about how California is a melting pot and all the different constituencies and blah blah blah, that would have fit in perfectly
Some things you’re pretty sure are gonna be in. And sometimes you’re wrong. But, very occasionally, someone says something and you think, “Great! That’s the lead,” or “That’s the end,” and you’re like *enthusiastic noise*! But that doesn’t happen enough. Often, you’re just still trying to figure it out.
I guess my theory is — with writing and structure and whatever — you ask a question with a story that you ideally never state, but the reader becomes aware of if they’re paying attention. And then, they show that they’re interested in helping you answer that question, or answering it for themselves. If you set up the question from the beginning, [for the Newsom piece] it would be: Is Gavin Newsom just another politician, or is there a human who might be something different?
Your kind of long-form writing requires a lot of perceptiveness. Do you think you’ve exercised perception as you’ve reported over the years, or do you feel as if you’ve always been a highly observant person?
I think I’ve always been observant, but I think I use it differently. I think I used to use it to hold people at a distance. When I was younger, it was more like laser beams coming out of my eyes. I was sort of insecure. This is probably too much information, but I did a lot of therapy and psychoanalysis, and I don’t think that made me more observant, but it made me think about what I was observing differently. Instead of observing something about someone, and using that observation to keep them at a certain distance, I thought about it more empathetically. I think that made me a much better writer, honestly. There used to be this unspoken snideness or distance in my writing.
That’s interesting, because when I read your writing, I definitely see you as a character in what’s going on.
How does that character come across?
I wouldn’t say that character comes across with bias — but I noticed it because a lot of journalistic writing involves someone who’s trying to be really removed from the story, right, like it’s a very conscious attempt to not be present. But you’re clearly a character in what’s going on, even if that’s not necessarily a character with certain traits, if that makes sense…no, it doesn’t make sense.
I guess my hunch would be that, if it’s coming across as some kind of character, it’s hard for that character to be totally faceless. There must be something that comes across, and I’m curious as to what that is.
I might have to think a little more about it to make a fully-formed thought — it was just something I was thinking about while reading. You’re definitely participatory in the story.
That’s more true in the last ten or so years, when I think I’ve been more comfortable with it. I decided, I think that objective stance…is kind of, like, bullshit. And, of course, a lot of people observe it — but, at the same time, I’m not a big fan of the “everything’s about me, the writer,” persona.
But, somewhere in the middle. I think there are moments in which you can proxy for the reader about how they might have felt in this moment, without making yourself forward or waving a hand. You can ask a question, or have a response, or say you felt something, that might invite people in. If you’re doing well, and if you’re in tune with what most people would feel — the thing is, often, you have no idea what most people would feel. You write something, and some people grab the trunk, some people grab the tail, and some grab the ears. It’s always a mystery.
People now read the stories on the website, and very often, it’s read in a voice that’s like nails on a blackboard to me. They’re smart, good actors, obviously, but that’s just not how I’m hearing it in my head. But, if this really smart, paid person is reading it that way, then maybe thousands of readers are reading it in their voices, and it’s totally different than what I wrote.
Would you prefer to read it in your own voice?
It takes a long time to read. I wrote a book a while back and had to read a chapter of it, which isn’t that long, and it took forever, because they kept stopping me to say that I had too much mouth noise. The actors that are good at this have to just, not ever salivate, or something.