In 1997, Rebecca Mead moved from New York Magazine to The New Yorker. You know, the best magazine in all the world, with the most stacks of unread copies in all the world to prove it. Because, of course, copies of The New Yorker pile up in so many homes of those who subscribe as a profound tribute to the publication. Each issue is so dense with incisive reviews and intensely delicious features, not to mention its bevy of hilarious cartoons and other tidbits, that it can take weeks in a busy life to get through a single issue. Hence, copies accumulate dust waiting to be read. One of these days I’ll get to that March 3, 2008 issue, which I just noticed has Nancy Franklin weighing in on a new TV drama, Breaking Bad. I peeked. “Breaking Bad is very well done, but it has a bleakness that seems to be manufactured for no good reason,” she writes. “I don’t feel won over by the show.” Wonder how she feels now. Incidentally, as another aside, Franklin wrote one of my favourite pieces of all time, on former big band singer Jo Stafford.
(Get on with it – ed.) Okay, back to Rebecca Mead. She was here for the Vancouver Writers’ Festival to talk about her book, My Life in Middlemarch, inspired by George Eliot’s much-loved Victorian novel described by interviewer Bill Richardson as a novel that could badly use a few car chases. ”If ever a movie will never star Vin Diesel…”
But Mead also chatted a bit about life as a staff writer at The New Yorker. Noting her move from New York Magazine to The New Yorker, she observed: “That ‘er’ at the end made all the difference.” For one thing, given The New Yorker’s prestige, people almost always called her back, something that was forever hit and miss at New York. “It gives you such access to fascinating people.”
The atmosphere at The New Yorker, said Mead, is “so nice and genteel. You hear all these lovely, quiet conversations behind closed doors… ….[And] you’re not required to do anything you really don’t want to do.” She likened her arrival to her entry to Oxford, after growing up in a bit of a backwater. “Suddenly, there were all these really intelligent people, focused on doing intelligent things.” Mead described editor David Remnick as relentless in pursuing matters that interest him. “He is very much engaged in the world.”
Her most recent long feature was a profile of the controversial British classics scholar, Mary Beard, whom she much enjoyed getting to know. Mead said she’s grateful to have left behind her old desire, fired at New York Magazine, to write critically of people, an aspect of her earlier writing that she attributed to her relative youth. It’s easier to write critical, edgy articles when you’re younger, she said. “I’m weary of that kind of heartlessness.”
At The New Yorker, she much prefers to engage with “someone I love and admire. I’m looking for the good in the world, not for a cheap way to bring someone down, although that still has a place in the world.”
One more thing. Mead is not a fan of journalism courses. She said her decision to study journalism at New York University was a mistake. “You only learn by doing something you’re told to do, and getting paid for at the end of it…..sorry, journalism professors.”
Then, it was on to Middlemarch and Mead’s book detailing how George Eliot and her massive tome, considered by some the greatest English novel, has impacted on her own life. She still re-reads it every five years or so. Mead reflected on how her own attitudes to the main characters and the plot, itself, have changed as she has grown older. She’s gone from thinking of the novel, at 17, as a love story, to a treatise on what makes a good marriage, to a sobering consideration of one’s place in the world. She is also much more sympathetic to the odious Casaubon and his scholastic failures. Meanwhile, she has found similarities with the author in her own life. George Eliot also loved to eviscerate people when she was young. “She was venting her own frustration with the world on the people she wrote about. Then [like me] she grew out of it.” More interestingly, George Eliot famously co-habited with intellectual George Henry Lewes and considered him her husband, despite the fact that Lewes remained officially married to the mother of his three sons. Eliot helped care for his sons and was close to them. The name of Rebecca Mead’s husband is also George, and he, too, has three sons from a previous marriage that Mead has helped raise. How odd is that?
As an added bonus, in a discussion on whether the world of email and Twitter has doomed insights into authors’ lives that were previously revealed in letters, we learned that the scarily-intellectual Susan Sontag once sent an email with the subject line: “Wassup”. All in all, with Rebecca Mead’s pleasant English accent, candour and succinct observations, augmented by the ever witty and erudite Bill Richardson, the session flew by. It was certainly worth missing the Canucks that night.