Q: But a lot of your work has never really fit any overall category, or even arrived at larger points.
A: I feel you give a reader a kit: "Here are some interesting pieces." I suppose there are meanings I mean to convey in my stories. There's a takeaway at the end. But even that, "takeaway," it gives me the creeps.
Q: Just as randomly, before you went to the New Yorker, you worked at Oui, the Playboy spin-off?
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A: I did. I lived at 1856 N. Lincoln Ave., near the zoo. Before I was writing for Talk of the Town, I was writing "girl copy" in Oui. It appalls women when they find out. Girl copy was like, "Sandra would like to show you where she keeps her things …" That kind of stuff, the copy that ran next to pictures of naked women.
Q: Is it true before you went there you were offered a job as a fact-checker at the New Yorker?
A: Yes. I knew it wouldn't have been my strong suit so I didn't take it, but if I had been a more decent person I probably would have taken that job. Instead I went to Playboy. They had this really interesting editor, Jon Carroll, who wrote to Harvard Lampoon, which I was part of in college, and they said, "If anyone wants to come to Chicago …" He was inventive and did interesting things with tone. His basic tone was to run a picture of a woman and give the copy attitude, like "Eat your heart out!" Which may be the reason why Oui didn't take off. If you were buying Oui, you probably didn't want irony. Ironic sex does not sell. No, this makes me sound like a sex writer and I am at the Humanities Festival to talk about the American family.
Q: Did you ever want to specialize, careerwise?
A: I have only ever wanted to generalize.
A: Because it's more interesting to look at a whole picture. The way to make anything work anymore is to find a niche. But if I am a white, middle-aged male writer, I want to read a young black female writer. I am contrarian and curious. You know how Amazon tells you what books you would like? I hate that. I want Amazon to say, "Look, this is the last book you should read." I like that impulse. You know when you go to a bookstore and see a black author section, a section for women authors? I get the reason for supporting writers who have been traditionally neglected, but I've always liked the bigger category, the open category.