Thursday, August 23, 2012

From the Way Back Machine: My Job Interview at The New Yorker

I was interested in this new book, a memoir by a woman who worked as a receptionist at The New Yorker for 21 years, from 1957 to 1978: The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker by Janet Groth.  

I’m always up for the gossipy element:  (All quotations below are from Heller McAlpin’s review in the Washington Post, found here.)

Readers looking for juicy tales of the quirky denizens of West 43rd Street will find a few — including accounts of weekly lunches with blocked writer Joseph Mitchell, and courtship by poet John Berryman, who tried to convince Groth that she would make a good third wife for him. Much of the book, however, concerns her extracurricular rather than professional life, including her many self-destructive affairs seeking a replacement father figure and husband, and her subsequent struggles with the “dumb blond cliche.”
And then there’s the evocation of the era:

Ultimately, it’s not her sexual saga but her evocation of the “Mad Men” working environment that makes Groth’s memoir interesting. “The Receptionist” vividly depicts a largely vanished Manhattan in which Ritz Crackers were the foundation of hors d’oeuvres, martinis were the mainstay of lunches, and pliable, overqualified women were stuck in lowly jobs forever.

But ultimately, it’s this bit of information that struck me most:

In her 21 years at the magazine, aside from a brief stint in the art department, she was never promoted. Yet, in that same period, she studied for her doctorate in English, taught composition at Vassar and wrote book reviews for Commonweal. When she finally left, in 1978, it was for a teaching job at the University of Cincinnati. She eventually published several books on Edmund Wilson and became a professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
Yikes.  I’m not surprised, but of course I am.  I always want to think better of The New Yorker.    (At least the magazine paid for all her education…and her analysis!) 

Of course, this is only one story of one woman who took one path.  And I know she's the one who chose to stay for all those years. But I think I’m especially interested in all this because way back in my ancient life, I had a job interview at The New Yorker. 

My boyfriend and I took the train up from Washington, where I had recently graduated with my MFA from American University.  I had several interviews in a short span of time:  Random House, The Hudson Review, and—dream job!— The New Yorker!  We stayed with my boyfriend’s friend in a Greenwich Village apartment that I found exotic because the shower was in the kitchen while the  toilet was in a little, locked room down the hall.  The friend shared the three-room place (total: two bedrooms plus the kitchen) with a woman who was a struggling stand-up comic (talk about a hard field for women…I remember her being a little bitter).

I can’t remember what I wore to my interviews, but I’m sure I would scoff at it now…probably some cheap “interview” suit. 

I showed up early for the interview at The New Yorker, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, my head swimming with the excitement of being in The Building.  I’d read and reread Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker and James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, so I knew a little about the layout of the office and the inner workings:  the Fact department, the Fiction department, Mr. Shawn, and so on.

I wish I could remember the name of the man who interviewed me—but it wasn’t anyone I’d heard of (I probably was half-expecting James Thurber or Harold Ross).  We exchanged pleasantries, and I could tell he liked me, or my gung-ho enthusiasm.  Some chit-chat about my many qualifications—my MFA!  The literary journal I had started and worked on in grad school!  Finally—probably to amuse himself—he asked what sort of position I had in mind.

I said, “Well, probably something in the fiction department.  Or maybe in editing.”  I’m sure I expanded upon this theme: I was born to work in The New Yorker fiction department.  Brendan Gill, etc.  My extensive experience starting my literary journal.

He smiled.  Then he said, “We often interview people who seem promising and hold onto their resumes, but it does turn out we actually have a job opening right now.”

I held my breath.

“In the typing pool,” he said.  (I told you this was in my ancient life!  While I personally owned a computer at this time, they hadn’t taken over yet.)

In either the gutsiest or stupidest move of my life, I let my mind race for barely a moment—what would it be like typing memos for the famous Mr. Shawn?—but then I said, “Thank you, but I think I should hold off for something that involves writing or editing.”

I’m sure he smiled again.  I’m sure he told the story to his colleagues and wife.  I’m sure he thought I was silly and young and na├»ve, and I’m sure I was. 

I wish I could say that the job I took at The Hudson Review was high-powered and important and advanced my career in some significant and exciting way and didn't involve typing.  I also wish I could say that there were never days where I didn’t spend some time regretting my decision:  I could have worked at The New Yorker…I could have slipped a story to Mr. Shawn instead of his typed memo and he would have loved it!...The New Yorker would actually READ my submissions because my cover letter would remind them I had worked there…I would mesmerize the crowd at Bread Loaf with my insider New Yorker gossip!  It’s true that anything could have happened, and surely I would have learned something.

But reading about Janet Groth’s book made me somewhat less regretful.  I would have been a typist.  A girl, expected to smile prettily when the real writers handed over their messy sheaf of paper five minutes before five.

And writing up this little reminiscence—a “casual” in old-time New Yorker parlance—has reminded me that one of the hardest things to learn about being a writer in general and a beginning writer in particular is to always, always take yourself and your art seriously.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.