What do you do?
Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, The Real Thing, and his latest non-fiction book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List.
Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC's Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine's architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.
From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called "The Imperial City" for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008). In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media. Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.
Kurt Andersen: I say “writer”. I mean writer is what it says on my passport. Even for the ten years I was a magazine editor, I didn’t change my occupational listing on the passport. So “writer” is it.
I’ve been writing novels and fiction for the last 10 or 11 years. I sometimes say “novelist.” But even that – and maybe this is my Midwestern ________ coming out – sounds almost too pretentious to say. But novelist, radio host. Different, very different joy from me for the different things I do. The joy of building a radio program, Studio 360, is simply having an idea for a theme we can work on the show and with my producers and my team of people, seeing that come into bloom.
But just very selfishly, that I can say, I did write as the Iraq war was beginning, I said, let’s do a show about war, from classical antiquity to now, and how it’s contributed in literature and film and art.
And let’s get Susan Sontag. I’ve never met her. Let’s get Susan Sontag on the program. And I did. And we did. It was amazing.
Every week I get to talk to, you know, Ben Kingsley or Norman Mailer or whomever. And that is the great joy, to spend an hour with those kinds of people and be able to ask them pertinent questions about how they do what they do. And even better than my life in journalism before the radio show began, which was only seven years ago, I don’t have to do any of the work after I talk to them. The producers do that. So I just get the pure fun of seeing the films, listening to music, reading the books and then talking to them. And then I’m done. So it’s unbelievably joyful.
The pleasures I get out of writing non-fiction, or writing essays, which is really what I do these days in journalism – is mostly a figuring out what I think. I wrote a piece about trying to figure out what I think about the current nightmare debacle of Iraq in terms of what U.S. policy should be, and what the debate should be. And that’s such a profoundly complicated thing to figure out, for me anyway. That it was only through writing and thinking it through that I was able to begin to figure out what I really did think we should or shouldn’t do. Or how long, or when we should leave and all of those things.
I sometimes begin a piece like that with a basic sentence, but I usually find that it is only through the writing that I get any clarity in my own mind.
For fiction, the pleasure, the joy, is being god of my own little world. And creating this world and these characters. In this latest book, in the middle of the 19th Century. As other fiction writers have said, they take on their own life and surprise one – the author – by doing things you didn’t expect. Still you are god. And so that’s hugely fun.
And since I’m relatively a new writer and I’ve dabbled in fiction before the last 11 years, but I’ve only been publishing, and I still feel like, as I expect to feel for the rest of my life, that I’m still figuring it out. So that the joy, if not mastering, at least having good moments of figuring out how to do this thing that again.
Because of my childhood and my parents sort of worship of fiction – great novels – I feel as though, you know, it’s if not the highest, best calling, at least one of them. And when I feel as though I’ve gotten a line right, or a character, or a paragraph, or a chapter; I was going to say it’s all struggle in what I do. But there’s very little struggle in what I do on the radio. It is a kind of unfairly pleasurable experience because the people I work with do most of the heavy lifting, and I just get to talk to brilliant people.
But any kind of writing – non-fiction or fiction – is a struggle. It’s a very moment-to-moment struggle of figuring where the right sentence, the right paragraph, the right page, the right structure for the larger thing. And when you’re writing a book – my two novels have been 600 odd pages – that becomes an enormous structure to try to get as right as possible. It’s a pleasurable struggle when you’re done; but it is a struggle while it’s going on.
I actually find the work of writing fiction less of a struggle, less of a stressful procedure than I do writing a 1,700 word essay. The essay, or journalism really is almost pure struggle. And then I’m only happy when I’m done. Whereas writing fiction has moments of pleasure amid the struggle while it’s going on. It depends.
It’s hard to say what I’m best known for. I meet people who say, “Oh, I love your radio show.” I meet people who say, “I loved Spy magazine,” which is a magazine I started 20 years ago. Or people who say, “I love your novel.” Or, “Your work in your magazine. . .” So best known for?
What I am known by the most people for, probably it’s a sort of a tie between, maybe it’s close to a three-way tie at this point, between writing novels, doing this radio program and having started Spy magazine.
I think one of the reasons I found a pleasant life in journalism is, I’m born with or I was raised with a kind of pretty voracious curiosity. I can also get bored easily. I think that those are probably essential qualities for a journalist or any kind of writer. I think also trying to do something I haven’t done but think I might be able to do is something that drives me. And if when I’ve gotten opportunities to do things I haven’t done before and the opportunity looks fun, I’ve taken advantage of it.
In the case of writing about politics and crime for Time magazine, to being an architecture critic. I went to Time thinking, “Oh, please let me be a culture writer.” That’s what I want to do. And they said, “Kid. Pay your dues writing about politics and crime.” And I did happily. And they sort of said, “Alright. You paid your dues.” But in general, again, there was no plan of action in the beginning.
When I look back at the things that I’ve done now, it’s really about sort of giving in to my curiosity, my sense of wanting to try something new, to be challenged by something new. And being very lucky again and again at having that opportunity.
When I interviewed Susan Sontag before the Iraq war, that was a great moment because she was a god to me. I remember the first time I was really moved by, and amazed by an essay was when I was 18 or 19; I read a famous essay she had written 10 years before called “Notes on Camp.” And so she was this enormous figure. That was great.
People ask me, “What’s your favorite moment on Studio 360,” or, “What’s your favorite issue of Spy magazine,” it’s hard for me to answer those questions because it’s like saying, “Which of your children is your favorite?” I really enjoy the doing of it.
There have been bad ones too. There was a time when an author lit up her cigarette while we were taping and didn’t come back. That was certainly a memorable moment.
I would say any time that I have a real rapport with a guest, that is a great moment. I remember . . . it wasn’t even an interview I was doing. It was a run on the show. And it was about the connections between heavy metal music and German music of the 19th Century. And so of course we talked about Wagner. And so there was this moment, the way the piece was cut, it was cut directly from a piece of Wagner to a German heavy metal band called Lonstein. And I just loved the idea of hundreds of thousands of public radio listeners all over America suddenly jumping out of their chairs when Wagner became heavy metal.
Recorded On: July 5, 2007
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