Narrative 10

We caught up with Pamela Paul as she marks the publication of her latest book, 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.

1. Who is your favorite character on the stage or in fiction; your fave character in life?

I can’t do favorites because there are too many, they’re always changing, and I have a terrible memory. I can only do things I like right now, so I’m going to talk about books I read in the past year. I’ll say some writers of nonfiction that I’ve read in the last year—characters, I suppose, in their own books—whose work I really admire: Bryan Stevenson, Ian Urbina, Annette Gordon-Reed, George Packer, Clint Smith, Maggie O’Farrell. Do they count as real-life characters? A character I read in fiction this past year that I really admire is Maddie in Charles Portis’s True Grit. That girl knows what she wants, and she’s got one of the strongest and most distinctive voices I’ve read in a novel in a long time. And no, I don’t know what took me so long to read the book.

2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?

There’s a poem by Shel Silverstein that has stuck with me since childhood. It hasn’t quite inspired me, but it has informed my general worldview. I actually wanted it for one of the epigraphs of 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet, but the fee for usage was too steep for me. But please look it up! The poem is called “Peckin’ ” and it’s about a woodpecker pecking at a plastic tree.

3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?

Well, I wrote a chapter about this in my memoir, My Life with Bob, but reading Spalding Gray for the first time was revelatory in that I identified so much with his voice that I felt like I knew him already and needed to know him in person. I identified with him in a way that I had never identified with characters in fiction in that I actually did feel like him. And the fact is, on paper at least, I am and was nothing like him! He was this much older, Waspy, New England–raised, depressive avant-garde theater performer and I was this kid from Long Island. It was the first time I read a book by an author who, unlike say George Eliot or Thomas Mann, was alive and was someone I could potentially meet in real life and have a connection with. I guess it was the book version of “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” Except with authors.

4. What’s a writing day for you?

I don’t get to write during the day because my day job is overseeing book coverage at the New York Times and editing the Times Book Review. That means writing is squeezed into the margins of my days. Pre-COVID, I did most of my writing on the train to work. Initially, I persuaded myself that I would only need to work one-way. That delusion was quickly dispelled by reality, and when I’m writing a book, it generally takes up much of the weekends as well. If I’m just working on an essay or a short piece for the Times, I tend to write in a fury of inspiration. It spills out quickly and prevents me from sleeping. But then I tend to edit very slowly, over and over again. Often, to the misfortune of my editors, after I hand something in. That may be a writer-editor curse.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

A really hot bath.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

I don’t know about the ones I use most, but I can tell you words I really enjoy, some of which I love/hate: irksome, foolish, silly, egregious, adorable, dreary and drearily, fussy and unfussy, awwww, and charming. I am fond of words that make things sound terrible: musty and mussy and sloppy and moldering and screwy and demented.

7. What’s your current obsession?

My current obsession is The History of English podcast, which strikes the ideal balance for me between engrossing and boring. This makes it easy for me to tune in and out, which is necessary since I generally listen while cooking or driving, and I’m not very good at doing two things at once. So I can space out when the host delves deeply into the assorted kings of 900s England and then tune back in when he talks about really interesting etymologies, like the number of terms and phrases derived from the medieval passion for falconry. Who knew that the very useful and enjoyable word untethered came about from the training of predatory birds? My other language podcast of choice recently is You Too Can Learn Thai. I learned some Thai while living in Thailand twenty-five years ago, but my Thai is rusty, to put it gently. The host, Khru Nan, is an excellent teacher who radiates enthusiasm and positivity. I’m still early enough on, though, that I already know most of the words she’s introducing, so we’ll see how well I do when it gets to episodes containing language I’ve never learned. In general, I like language and interview podcasts, which is entirely predictable.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

My first boss in publishing used to hand back things I’d written with a big slash through whole paragraphs and sometimes the entire page and the single word ugh written in the margin. You can’t get away with that kind of bloodless editing nowadays because people have feelings and bosses and editors are more conscious of them, but at the time it served me well because I thought I was a really good writer when I was twenty-four, and I most definitely was not. I know the current mode is to lift people up, but in my case and at that time, I needed to be taken down a notch. It made me work much, much harder. Incidentally, in his biography of Henry Kissinger, Walter Isaacson tells a story, possibly apocryphal, about a man who worked for Kissinger in Washington who submitted a report and found it returned to him with a single phrase from Kissinger on the first page, saying, “Is this the best you can do?” Flustered and upset, the guy rewrote it entirely and handed it in again. Again, the same single sentence on the returned copy. It happens a third time, at which point the man storms back into Kissinger’s office and says, “Yes, damn it, this is the best I can do.” And Kissinger replies, “Okay, then this time, I’ll read it.” It’s so awful! And yet . . .

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Here’s what I didn’t know: that you don’t have to do just one thing in life. And that there is no single path to the place you want to go. For a dispiritingly long time, I thought life was like Candyland, and there was only one road leading to the gingerbread house.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

Ack, I don’t know! Does anyone?

Finally, is there a passage from one of the stories in 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet that you’d like to share with our readers?

Each chapter is about something that’s either gone entirely or so fundamentally changed that it no longer exists in its earlier recognizable form. This is excerpted from a chapter called “Wondering about the Weather.” I thought about it recently when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the New York region in an unexpectedly strong way (the phone didn’t seem to have given us a firm enough head’s up):

The skies can no longer deliver an unexpected sunny afternoon or catch us without an umbrella. You don’t have to check the morning paper or wait twenty-two minutes while 1010 WINS gives us the world before the weather. There’s no mystery to it, no magical touch to the evening news’s weathercaster, if you even bother to tune in to the evening news. You already know what the weather anchor is going to say.

With minute-by-minute changes in precipitation from light drizzle to a stormy mix, forecast ten days out by zip code, one is awash in a mesmerizing level of detail about one’s current meteorological position at all times of the day. I have watched, stunned, as one of my kids fixated on the periodic bursts of simulated lightning that appear on the iPhone weather app while an actual thunderstorm with visible dramatic lightning raged just outside the window. In an office with all-window walls, people check their phones for the weather before craning a neck to look outside. I have glared in fury at the weather app when it dares contradict the weather around me. Betrayed.