Laura Mayer is an Associate Producer at WNYC.
Late last month, journalist Janet Malcolm had a conversation with New Yorker writer Ian Frazier at The New Yorker Festival. Malcolm's writing has been appearing in The New Yorker — as well as in other outlets — for almost 50 years.
From her first piece published in the magazine (a poem, followed by a monthly column entitled "About the House"), to the keenly descriptive, long-form investigative articles that have become her trademark, Malcolm's career trajectory can be very clearly plotted in the pages of the The New Yorker.
In the recording above, Frazier, another longtime New Yorker writer, holds court with Malcolm — discussing topics such as the journalist/interviewee relationship, the impact of technology on their work, and the challenges facing young writers.
The two also gave writing advice to the audience. One audience member asked, "I wrote a profile over the summer, it was my first ... Where do you start, or any advice you have, for [young] journalists?"
"I used to write 'Talk of the Town' a long time ago with an older writer who was there named George Trow," said Frazier. "George would go out and take notes on an event and then he'd go back and circle the things that he really liked in his notes. And then he'd take those things and put them in order — to the thing that he liked absolutely the most."
Malcolm added: "I had started by writing about design and shops ... you've just made me think about what I was doing when I was your age. I think I was writing easier subjects than profiles. I was going and looking and describing things. And I've been grateful for that apprenticeship..."
Another audience member posed this question: "Do you use a computer, how has that affected your writing process?"
To which Malcolm said to Frazier, "You still use a typewriter, right?"
"Janet and I used to be the only two people to use manual typewriters," he replied. "I wrote a profile — I went down to get my typewriter fixed. And he was the only guy that still fixed typewriters. I wrote a profile of him. Janet wrote me a letter because she knew the guy, too."
Frazier on Malcolm: "Janet Malcolm describes chaos better than anybody."
Malcolm on opening lines: "That's my criteria for beginnings. If they kind of peter out, you haven't got the right one."
Malcolm on the real thing: "This is the beauty of this work. There are these surprises that come to us all the time. These are the gifts from actuality."
Frazier on doing what you have to: "I would often be in situations where I'd be interviewing someone and they'd say, 'I really need a ride to the clinic.' Or some crisis would come up. Someone would need my car to take them somewhere. You had to judge by a case by case, but I usually did it. A lot of those cases involved giving people, like, $40. Someone described it as ATM journalism, because I was always going off to the ATM."