Sadie Stein is the Deputy Editor of The Paris Review and the Editor of the journal’s online counterpart, The Paris Review Daily. Before joining the Review in May 2011, Stein was a fashion and arts editor at Jezebel. In her role as fashion watchdog, she once pulled a fabulous stunt at fashion week involving a large, identically dressed doll.
Together with Lorin Stein (no, no relation whatsoever), she edited the freshly published (October 2nd!) book Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story. Her writing appears regularly on The Paris Review Daily. She also has a pretty neat blog.
You went to the University of Chicago and wrote a creative thesis. Would you say, at that time, that you identified as a writer?
I was always very embarrassed to use that word, and I wouldn’t describe myself that way now, actually. My parents both wrote for a living, so I was very conscious of not romanticizing that. Until I supported myself that way, I would not have been comfortable using the term.
But I will certainly concede that I had no other practical skills. I am incompetent in many spheres, in anything practical. So I knew I would have to do something that incorporated writing. I think in some ways that is a great blessing, because you don’t have a hundred careers staring you in the face. I knew that I was limited to things centered on reading and writing and language.
Your parents both write. Tell me about that.
My dad is a journalist and my mom writes children’s books. And when she was younger, she wrote for television. And my grandfather was also a writer; he was a playwright.
Did you ever feel rebellious? Like, that you didn’t want to become a writer because your parents both did that.
I was very protective of my writing, when I was younger particularly. I wouldn’t let my parents read my college application essays, which was purely rebellious and self-destructive.
My dad is a very heavy-handed editor and we had different styles. I knew he would mean it for the best, but… I wasn’t a rebellious teenager but that was one of the ways in which I thought it was important to preserve my autonomy.
And did that reluctance continue…
Oh yes! I don’t like to show them my work. They are overly enthusiastic about it— you know, they are parents.
You went to Paris after graduating from college. What’s the story there?
Well, I went with a boyfriend and he had the real grown-up job, doing something with energy, something international… He was off wearing a suit, and he had a badge. [Laughs.] So I kind of tagged along. I got a bunch of jobs. I was a part-time au pair, I worked in the American Cathedral – which was very bizarre – I started giving English lessons, and I also started doing some ghost writing. Whatever I could find that paid the bills.
Why was the American Cathedral job bizarre?
There was a really peculiar group of people… There was this Englishwoman, Pamela, who kind of ran everything and had this puff of apricot-colored hair and a face like a bulldog and an oddly flirtatious manner with men. There was this old lady with no teeth who was a horrible racist who would come in. Then we had all the clergy. I became good friends with the verger, who is like the janitor in a church.
In retrospect, that was a depressing period, but the characters there were so amazing that I started writing them up. I started a little blog just to keep my hand in and to chronicle things that happened there.
What was your actual job among all these characters?
I did clerical work in the cathedral office. But I also sometimes ran the front desk, deciding who was allowed in. But I was bad at it, I was a real soft touch. I let everyone in, I didn’t make anyone show ID. I let this old toothless racist come in and hang out in front of the heater, and she was supposed to be banned because she had attacked a child. So…
Wait, what? [Laughs.]
[Bursts out laughing.] I wasn’t a very good guard.
The other odd thing about that – though there were a lot of odd things – was that every day you had three or four of what they called Japanese Weddings. It was couples from Japan who had paid a certain flat rate to have a very abbreviated, token wedding ceremony. I think they were all legally married in Japan already. They would be married in the cathedral for a photo op – they got photographs taken in front of various Parisian landmarks. They were married by a Taiwanese minister who didn’t speak any Japanese. I guess they thought it was close enough? Then they were given this really terrible, warm, pink champagne. And we were always given the leftovers to drink.
That is so bizarre.
Oh, and the strangest part of all! You know Olivia de Havilland, the actress? She was a major part of the congregation. She was always hanging around, too.
So, you had the apricot-haired bulldog woman, the toothless lady who attacked children, and then classic Hollywood actress Olivia de Havilland. Great mix. You started blogging about this. Where you ever worried that any of the characters would find and read your blog?
No, I didn’t tell anyone about it. It was just for fun. And I gave them all pseudonyms.
Who was reading your blog?
I didn’t want anyone to read it. Then my parents… I let something slip and they started reading it and their friends did and they started complaining when I didn’t post all the time… Gradually, some of my friends started reading. And that was a lot of fun. I continued to do that for the next few years.
What was life like with this suit and badge-sporting boyfriend in Paris?
We lived in a fifth floor walk-up in the sixth, on Rue Daupine. It was actually a really nice place considering what we paid for it. But then, maybe I’ve just been living in New York too long… It was sort of an airy loft space. We had a satisfyingly horrible Parisian landlady who would periodically show up and be abusive.
In some ways, it was a strange and depressing year. I mean, when you are an ex-patriot, you are thrown together with so many strange people whom you wouldn’t normally know. But it was a lot of fun. I did a tremendous amount of cooking and put away almost no money.
Did you gravitate toward the traditional expat hub Shakespeare and Company?
Oh, I loathe Shakespeare and Company! [Laughs.] It’s an amazing place. It was so full of self-congratulatory…I mean, the people there were so self-satisfied, it was unbelievable. And [George] Whitman was really creepy! He paid me the dubious distinction of saying that I could use his private library and hang out with him which, you know, is an offer extended to every young woman who enters that store.
I had started writing more than ever before and I had decided that I would read at one of the readings at Shakespeare and Company. And, oh my gosh… It was a combination of kind of minor, minor, minor, off off off Broadway members of the Beat movement who we had never heard of and the usual riff-raff from Shakespeare and Company. Everyone read this very self-serious poetry. One guy got up and did this rambling piece of performance art about fascism. He started to cry, I remember…
So, I got up. And I read this incredibly bizarre story. People really did know what to make of it. And so that was sort of the end of my career at Shakespeare and Company. I was never again asked to come up to the private library.
I remember this guy who worked there would stand outside and favor you with a mocking bow as you walked in. I just found running the gauntlet of this guy’s bowing so humiliating and horrible that I stopped going there.
Had you planned on staying longer in Paris and left because the relationship with your boyfriend came to an end?
No. I didn’t have a visa and I knew I had to get back to my real life at some point. I had run through what small savings I had from working during summers and I was not making much in Paris, needless to say. So, at a loss for what to do, I decided to take the Columbia Publishing Course [in New York City], which a friend of mine had done the summer before. It got me a job in publishing, with Henry Holt, for about a year. I was an editorial assistant.
Did you think you wanted to be a book editor? Why did you go into publishing?
Gosh, I just didn’t know what to do. I figured it was something I could do. I like books and I had certain familiarity with the world of it. So, I figured I had realistic expectations and would enjoy it. My boss was terrific and I worked on some really interesting books. When I left it was not due to any fault of my boss or the house. It was a combination of factors. I had some health issues at that time and working full time became a little tricky for me.
So, I started working part-time in a boutique in Brooklyn, on a whim. I had one of those moments of panic after you’ve left a job where you just don’t know where your next paycheck is going to come from. And so I saw a Help Wanted sign at this boutique that had just opened, and it ended up being a really great thing. I loved it. I know I said I had no other practical skills, but I don’t think I’ll ever be as good at anything as I was at selling clothes. Or enjoy anything as much. I was in my element.
I would recommend it to any writer. Not just because of the number of people you get to meet, but because it forces you out of your shell. Because writing is so inherently solitary, it is nice to balance it with a job that involves some other socialization.
Quitting a job in publishing to go work in retail – it must have been a scary decision to make.
Sure. But I suppose at that age a lot of people want to abdicate ambition for a little while. And I was certainly no exception. But it ended up being such a good thing for me. Through that job, I got to know a ton of people. I had continued writing on my blog the whole time – indeed more than ever after I started there. And that is actually how I got my job at Jezebel. Because I became friends with some editors at Gawker and Jezebel who lived in the neighborhood and became regular customers of mine. I guess they Googled me and found my blog. They started reading it and passed it around to their bosses.
The funny thing is that when a position opened up as a Fashion Editor at Jezebel, someone suggested me because I worked in this clothing store. Now, I didn’t know anything about fashion. But I’m a quick study, so for six months I did both jobs simultaneously. I was blogging from the store and selling clothes while I was supposed to be blogging, and neither boss knew. But I hated the thought of giving up my retail job!
It is such a wonderful story. To have someone approach you about being an Editor at Jezebel while you are working in this clothing store.
It is definitely a pre-recession story. I was certainly extremely lucky, no question about that. I mean, I had no business getting that job. And I am so lucky they decided to take a fire on me. It ended up being a good match for my skills because I have always been able to work quickly and on deadline. And even though I knew nothing about fashion, I liked the women so much. And I was allowed pretty quickly to write about things that were more to my taste. But don’t get me wrong –I have always been interested in clothes and how people choose to dress themselves, and fashion as an art form is interesting.
I love the stunt that you pulled with the doll at fashion week a few years ago.
Oh, yes. I still have her on my windowsill. I am a big fan of dolls, a great believer in dolls in general.
At Jezebel, writers and editors used to work mainly from home, right?
Yes, for the most part. I believe they have changed the set-up, and I believe it differs from place to place. But during my time, my first two years there I was working primarily from home. And then during my last year, they requested that everyone begin working from the office.
Was working from home a welcome aspect of the job?
I loved it! I have never done as much cooking as the years I was blogging. It was perfect timing. You could put on a soup before your first post, or mix up some starter and knead bread and let it rise, and measure it by the different posts you were doing.
I’m with you. I was baking cinnamon buns last week in a similar fashion – I also work from home. But a lot of people ask, “How do you do it?!” Did you get up and get dressed like you were going to work, or…?
I did. I am not naturally disciplined enough, so I had to have the framework in place of real job. I had to get up, get dressed properly, go into another room and start working. And then be able to close that same door at the end of the day.
Where were you living at that time?
Initially during that period, I was living in Greenpoint. And then I wanted to be able to close the door of an office at the end of the day, so I took a slightly bigger place in Bed Stuy.
I mean, it’s a funny thing. You are so solitary during the day and yet you are in constant contact with everyone. And I remember this rush of euphoria you’d get at the end of a workday, just jabbering at someone in the bodega…just being unable to stop talking because you realize you’d gone twelve-thirteen hours without speaking to anyone.
When you had money, what did you spend it on? What were your indulgences back then?
I have always spent my money on the same things. Food, of course. Ingredients for cooking. Perfume. And then I get into phases where I fritter money away on Ebay. I’ll kind of go into a sort of manic phase and just start bidding like crazy. I remember one week when three driftwood lamps arrived in the mail.
Oh, that is bad. And that happens when you work from home…
Yeah, I didn’t think I would win all of them… I was really inspired at one or two a.m. [Laughs.]
So, for how long did you work at Jezebel?
And when you left you went to The Paris Review. You’ve had all these great jumps in different directions. And that was another great jump in a different direction.
I had met Lorin [Stein, Editor of The Paris Review. No relation.] at a party and when this job came available, he thought of me and knew my work and I came in for an interview. And the rest is history.
Was it a dream job for you?
I don’t know if I have ever thought of anything in terms of a dream job, exactly. Which is, I think, a good way to think. Because everything can be equally delightful and surprising. And I think that sort of flexibility is also what has allowed me to jump around in such a peculiar way. But, insofar as a dream job involves congenial people, and fantastic work that is never boring and always engaging, it is certainly that.
How does it compare to your job at Jezebel?
I come into an office every day, for starters. Which I love. It took me six months to feel like I wasn’t kind of putting on a costume every morning. But, yeah. I really like that actually.
When you were younger, did you read The Paris Review?
Yes, of course. I remember reading it as far back as my high school library, here in New York. If I had reason to look ahead and know I would be where I am today, it would have saved me some really anxious time, let’s put it that way.
Now Picador and The Paris Review is putting out this new book, Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story. You are actively a part of creating content that other young readers who were once like you back in your high school library will read and think about aspiring to.
Working in any institution, I guess, is what we’re talking about. On one hand, you have the history all around you. And I can look here to the little filing cabinet that holds up my desk, and it’s George Plimpton’s old filing cabinet. It has his little typewritten labels on it. There are just little pieces of casual living history everywhere – correspondence with writers and snapshots… But it is all worn very lightly. I think we have a tremendous respect for the heritage. But we live with it and it is such a vibrant place that you don’t think of it being moribund in any sense.
When you were younger, what was your idea of success?
I always felt like material success meant that you had one of those guys who meet you at the airport with a sign with your name on it. To not have to think about getting anywhere after a flight seemed to me the height of luxury. I guess it still does. I don’t imagine I will ever be in a car like that. Even if I did, I wouldn’t know to look for the sign. That’s sort of pathetic, isn’t it? [Laughs.]
Being able to abdicate responsibility like that seems like the height of luxury.
What is your idea of success today?
Now… [Pauses for a long time.]
You know, in New York everything is so strange. You can’t think in normal terms. If you think, One day I’d like to have a baby, then you immediately think, How can I live in an apartment that would accommodate a child? If we talk about getting married, we don’t know where we could afford to do a reception in the city. It would be nice to have those things not be a source of anxiety one day. But in terms of being happy and optimistic and actively content every day, I can’t imagine being more so than I am now.
That’s a lovely place to be.
It’s true, too. And it’s really nice to be able to say it.
Do you have a writing group?
No. I probably should. But I can’t imagine anything that I’d hate more. [Laughs.]
I read other people’s things for a living. And, you know, we all have our scars from creative writing seminars, don’t we? On the one hand, you never have such satisfying enemies as you have in those classes. You will never hate as you do during those hours. But maybe it is a good thing to abandon that.
Serendipity has been a guiding principle on your path, it seems.
I have certainly been incredibly lucky.
Well, you have to be ready when luck strikes. So it is certainly not as simple as luck.
That’s true. Whoever said that, “Luck is a residue of design” – that isn’t true in my case. But, I think there is a lot to be said for kindness. If there is anything that I’ve done well it is, I hope, treating people properly.
We are moving into advice territory. What advice would you offer young creative types?
That would be the first advice I would give them: Be kind to everyone. Not because people can help you but because…it will pay dividends. It is the way you will have wanted to live your life in a couple of years and in a few more years even more so, I am sure. And, on a practical level, this is a small city and a small business and a small world. You see a lot of people being unkind for a cheap laugh or for a few page views. And it’s not a way to live your life.
It will probably backfire.
Yes. Down the line, in some way.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo courtesy of the artist
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