‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ Author Taffy Brodesser-Akner on God, Gwyneth, and Carly Rae Jepsen
Most readers have gotten to know Taffy Brodesser-Akner as the woman behind the tape recorder, tackling the most talked-about figures in the zeitgeist with profiles to chew over a Sunday morning bagel. For her New York Times Magazine cover story on Gwyneth Paltrow, Brodesser-Akner went where many a wellness blogger go—the In Goop Health summit—albeit rarely with such a keen critical eye: “I pulled down my pants for a man in scrubs who was giving out B12 shots, never telling him my secret, that I’d been taking the Goop vitamins and my urine was already a fluorescent yellow—no, gold—a superfood elixir.” Brodesser-Akner writes with a wink at the preposterous vanity of celebrity culture, turning a delectable phrase on everything from Bradley Cooper’s existential crisis to Marie Kondo’s “Ruthless War on Stuff.”
Having made a career chronicling the lives of figures elusive, perplexing, and moneyed, the tables are now, thankfully, being turned. With her debut novel, Fleishman is in Trouble (out today from Penguin Books) Brodesser-Akner herself has become the subject of media attention, from her diet to her morning routine to her interviewing techniques. We turned the recorder on the writer, lifting a list of questions from Glenn O’Brien’s legendary 1977 interview with Andy Warhol. Perched on the made-up bed of an Atlantic City hotel, Brodesser-Akner answered each of our questions, from whether she believes in outer space to whether Nixon got a raw deal.
[25 minutes after the call was scheduled.]
TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER: I’m absolutely horrified. Can you forgive me for being incompetent? I’ve been receiving calls all morning and I was just, like, sitting here on a hotel bed making snow angels in my Twitter mentions and thinking that you were running late. I’m in Atlantic City on a story.
SARAH NECHAMKIN: I kind of love being alone in hotels.
BRODESSER-AKNER: I love it, too. I feel like there’s part of me that went into this so that I could do that. This is the lifestyle I’ve always wanted.
NECHAMKIN: I didn’t write the following questions, so don’t get mad at me if you don’t like some.
BRODESSER-AKNER: I’m not mad at you.
NECHAMKIN: What was your first work of writing?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I got into film school by writing a pretend investigative piece about the existence in the 1990s of a secret 51st state where they were breeding compounds for dysfunctional families since the ’50s to feed into what was then the current talk show explosion. I was 19.
NECHAMKIN: Did you get good grades in school?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I was a terrible student. I was kicked out of more than three schools. I wasn’t even good at English. I had a side gig writing people’s college essays, and when my English teacher found out about it, she said, “It’s not just that it’s unethical for you to do this. It’s that you’re not that good.” I think about her all the time.
NECHAMKIN: What did you do for fun when you were a teenager?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I watched television. That was my only fun. I grew up in a very religious household, and my mother kept a very strict eye on all of us. I watched Thirtysomething. I watched Tribe. I watched A Different World. I loved Northern Exposure. My mother would not let me watch Dallas or Dynasty, but sometimes, if I could make myself really still, she would not remember I was in the room for at least six or seven minutes. But, during those minutes, I was so nervous that she’d see me that I don’t remember any of the content.
NECHAMKIN: Who was the first writer to influence you?
BRODESSER-AKNER: It was probably Philip Roth. I read Philip Roth at a very young age because my mother wouldn’t let me read Sweet Valley High books because she saw the blonde twins on the cover and thought there would be endless sex. I was able to read Philip Roth books because they just had words on the cover. She thought they must be just literature. I would never assume I should imitate Philip Roth, but that’s the kind of book I was raised on, and that’s the kind of book I still love.
NECHAMKIN: Pepsi or Coke?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Diet Coke. After I turned 40, Diet Coke started giving me a headache, so now it is like a fickle mistress.
NECHAMKIN: Do you change your clothes to write?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Why would I do that?
NECHAMKIN: I guess some people change their clothes to do whatever their art is. They need to be in the right headspace.
BRODESSER-AKNER: I pride myself on being able to write anywhere, and no matter what the circumstances are. I have closed stories in formalwear, I’ve closed stories in sweatpants, and I’ve closed stories in a bathrobe.
NECHAMKIN: Do you ever take any drugs?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I take an acid reflux pill. I used to smoke pot in my 20s, but if somebody is passing it around, I will be delighted to participate, except I can no longer handle the medical stuff. It’s too intense. I guess the answer is: Not anymore, which is a huge bummer. Sometimes, however, I smoke a cigarette.
NECHAMKIN: Do you believe in marriage?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I do. And my husband, I hope, still does, too. But I often wonder if there could ever truly be gender equity in marriage. The reason I wonder that is because I think that institutions have to be burned down in order to ever really change, and I don’t know that we’ve successfully burned down marriage, especially when assholes like me are still participating in it. Is Gwyneth Paltrow right, and sometimes we just live too long to be compatible with the same person forever? Maybe we change too much, or maybe the years of being with a person can change us both in so many different directions, that we’re no longer compatible, which is either a shame or a relief depending on who you are.
NECHAMKIN: Do you think that people should live in outer space?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I do not. We shouldn’t even think about outer space. I think that outer space should not be a legal topic of discussion, because it is terrifying, and has no atmosphere. And it is none of our business.
NECHAMKIN: Do you know how to drive?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Of course I know how to drive. I lived in Los Angeles, and I live in New Jersey now. All I do is drive. My favorite thing about the show Big Little Lies is the amount of scenes of women in their cars. It’s the only proof I have that somebody out there understands what my life is like. The deepest moments, the biggest thoughts I have, are in my car, and I wish that you could see me through my rearview window, driving and thinking. When I saw that on that show, I suddenly felt like a relevant person in the world, which is hard when you’re a mother in the suburbs, to feel like you’re a relevant person in the world.
NECHAMKIN: Do you think Nixon got a raw deal?
BRODESSER-AKNER: [Laughs] Let me answer that as if I were asked it at a relevant time in our nation’s history: I’m still pulling for him. I have a long history of betting on bad horses.
NECHAMKIN: Do you believe in the American Dream?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I don’t believe in the American Dream. I think the American Dream has gotten really screwed up in that the more successful we become, the harder we work. Why is it that we’re working so hard when we become successful? Why shouldn’t success make it so that we have to work a little less hard? Why doesn’t money allow us to have an equanimity? Why does it always engender the need for more money?
NECHAMKIN: Did you ever see a movie that got you hot?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I saw Wild at Heart when I was 14, in a sneak preview with my father. We didn’t know what the movie was. We didn’t acknowledge that we were in a very, very inappropriate movie. We left, and I’m pretty sure we have not looked each other in the eye since.
NECHAMKIN: Do you believe in god?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I do. I was taught about god so young that I can’t even picture what it looks like to not believe in god. I think that’s one of the ways religion fucks you up—it gives you a worldview when you’re so little that you couldn’t possibly picture it another way. The people I see who come to god later, come to god as benevolent, whereas I’m terrified of god.
NECHAMKIN: What’s your favorite scent?
NECHAMKIN: Do you know how to dance?
BRODESSER-AKNER: I like to think I’m a good dancer, but I’m also a literal dancer in that I act out lyrics, which used to be cute, but it is not anymore. Like, for “Call Me Maybe,” I would put my hand to my ear as a telephone.
NECHAMKIN: Did you ever hate anybody?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Of course I have. Anyone who tells me they haven’t is lying. Anyone who has had siblings and says that they have never hated someone is lying. I have had a hatred that burns with a thousand suns, but I have had love that burns with a million.