An Interview

Here’s a link to an interview I did with Rachel Gilman for WNYU radio last summer:


Reserved for Speaker

Here is the thing I liked best about speaking at the Present Day Club, in Princeton, New Jersey (founded in 1898 by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and Miss Ada L. Norris): a parking spot.

Reserved For Speaker

Two Clubs

The other night I was at the New York Society Library, which more than anything made me want to be a little rich kid so I could frequent the children’s room. A man named Bill Dean—a tall, elegant lawyer of seventy-nine—told me some wonderful stories about the library, which dates back to pre-Revolutionary days. It was the original library of Kings College (Columbia University) and, while New York was the capital of the United States, the first Library of Congress. Recently, Mount Vernon returned a book that George Washington had borrowed—actually, they replaced the book, at considerable cost, but it was only a fraction of the late fees. Another delinquent was Herman Melville. All the books on whaling disappeared from the library until after he finished “Moby-Dick.”

The New York Society Library is in a sumptuous space on East 79th Street. Before the talk, I spent a few minutes  sitting on the marble steps between stories, going over my notes. I had brought along a framed proof of Eleanor Gould on Lawrence Weschler’s 1995 piece about war crimes and Vermeer in The Hague. Jeffrey Frank (a member of the NYSL) graciously lent it to me for the occasion. It is quintessential Eleanor: irritable, witty, logical, cutting.

Roger Angell was there with his wife, Peggy, and seeing Roger in the aisle seat gave me an unaccountable sense of warmth and familiarity. Roger got quite a shock, I think, seeing a Gould proof on his chair after all these years. The library members are passionate about language. One man wanted to talk about “that” and “which.” He didn’t see what the big fuss was about: just get rid of “that” and always use “which,” and forget about the commas—a revolutionary idea that would put a lot of copy editors out of business.

Next, I took the train to Washington and spoke at the Cosmos Club. Oh, man . . . If I stay in any more places like this, I’m going to begin to believe I’m entitled to it. The Cosmos Club is in a mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, near Dupont Circle. The event was a literary dinner: cocktails, salad, fish, coffee, dessert, and me. I don’t have a stock speech—I get bored saying the same thing over and over—so I was still writing something in the afternoon and had to ask the receptionist to print it out for me. My room had beautiful molding in the ceiling, like inverted cake frosting. It reminded me of the Fleischmanns’ apartment on 66th and Madison. I had a hard time writing about anything besides the room I was writing in. So I decided to talk about Jeanne and Peter, and how I was adamant that Peter had not gotten me my my job in the editorial library.

About a hundred and twenty people were seated at round tables—it looked like Versailles. Three women across from me at the table wanted to know what I thought about “than” in a sentence such as “Dee was  two years younger than [I or me?].” I had written “Dee was two years younger than me,” and I stand by it. I said that we’d all been taught that “than” was a coordinating conjunction and should be followed by the nominative (I), but that it was also a preposition and could be followed by the accusative (me). This made those women very grumpy. It was not what they wanted to hear.

Very far along in the book tour I am learning how to incorporate friends. I’d arranged for a friend of my late friend Lindsley Cameron Miyoshi, Pam Constable, to come. Lindsley had talked about her for years. And to my surprise the friendly face of Jim Conaway appeared. We were on a press junket to Greece together. He turns out to be a member of the club. Starr Kopper, who sat next to me, knew Gregory Maguire, a friend from long ago  in Greece (and, yes, the author of “Wicked”), and had gone to school with Anne Mortimer Maddox (Dusty), a former fact checker at The New Yorker. As usual, when it was over and I could relax, all these people evaporated.

But I am used to that by now, and I found my way to the bar by myself. Seated there was a woman I’d enjoyed talking to earlier and a man who said we’d met last summer on Martha’s Vineyard. “Oak Bluffs?” he said. “The cement camel?” I’d been to a book festival on Martha’s Vineyard, so I figured he must be a writer, but I couldn’t place him. Gradually he came into focus: Jesse, a fish scientist, with a yard full of fruit trees and, yes, a sculpture of a camel. He is a friend of my friend Susan, whom I stayed with on the island. She had been invited over to pick peaches and took me along. The wisteria was in bloom, and I learned that wisteria blossoms are edible. So I had someone to talk with at the Cosmos Club after all.

Backstage at TED

My TED Talk was released last Friday, April 15th, just in time for Happy Hour. When I wrote that to my publishers, who naturally hope that a TED Talk will help sell books, they thought I meant that I would be celebrating at the nearest bar. I was being sarcastic, an effect that is often lost in e-mail. I thought it extremely unlikely that anyone would spend Friday evening watching a TED Talk about the life of a copy editor. But Monday during business hours? It might have a chance. Anyway, it is viewable here.

In case you are wondering how this works, the TED team starts way in advance. Someone first got in touch with me back in September or October, and someone else nailed down the travel details—the conference was in February, in Vancouver—before anyone could possibly know whether I would be able to think of anything to say. There was a steady flow of e-mails over several months: register for the conference, schedule a rehearsal time, send bio and photo, provide info for badge, RSVP for dinner, compose a list of books, download the conference app . . . I got so many TED e-mails that they started going into spam.

My first idea, presented at a rehearsal for which I was humiliatingly unprepared, was to take on the commas in the Second Amendment. (I soon found out that someone far more qualified was scheduled to speak on the subject of gun control.) Then I gathered all the punctuation jokes I could find into a monologue, featuring what I call the vocative comma (“Let’s eat, Grandma” versus “Let’s eat Grandma”), the serial comma, and the Graham Greene deathbed comma (in which the great stickler stripped his official biographer of the exclusive right to sort through his archive). I proposed to deliver the monologue in full Comma Queen regalia, with crown, comma shaker, giant-pencil scepter, and comma-print stole. My jokes were politely rejected and the costume idea scrapped.

Finally, the woman who was helping me develop the talk suggested two subjects, and I went with one of them: the relation of the copy editor and the writer. She said it would help if I had slides, and the tech team made the slides and promised to click through them for me. This was crucial. I had to admit that slides would help, but I didn’t trust myself to press a button and talk at the same time. Furthermore, I would be allowed to speak from notes at a lectern. Not having to memorize the talk took off layers of pressure as thick as a geological epoch.

In February, I flew to Vancouver, where I had a room with a view of the water—not that you could see it. It rains a lot in Vancouver in February. The conference was in the convention center down the street. It featured loads of free stuff, much of it edible, and I did my best to resist, but soon I was taking gourmet peanut-butter cups back to my room, and sampling coconut chips and seaweed snacks and Chilean wine and matcha tea. Lunch appeared, and food trucks—all free. Conference attendees can watch the talks live in the auditorium or live-streamed on any of several TVs, some of them in lounges with beanbag chairs.

My talk was scheduled for Wednesday morning. I showed up in makeup at 7 A.M. Screens behind you magnify your image for the audience, as if you were running for office. I looked to myself like a hard-lacquered, thin-lipped version of me, but the makeup artist had worked hard, so I didn’t complain.

There was a Madonna microphone, the kind that no one is supposed to notice but that always looks to me like a giant spider clinging to the performer’s face. There was a wire down my back and a wide spandex belt under my dress to hold the battery pack. There was not a full house. TED has such a lineup of talks at its conference that it can release a new talk on video every day for a year. Even the most devoted TEDster would be hard-pressed to sit through all those talks in person.

The auditorium was in the style of an amphitheatre, with several different kinds of seating: easy chairs, upholstered benches, stools. I liked to watch the talks from way up high and to the side, where I could see the clock ticking down. It was a digital clock that told the speaker how much time she had left. My talk was supposed to be nine minutes. We were warned that if we went overtime there would be consequences, but almost everybody did, some by seconds, others by many minutes. While I was speaking, I looked at the clock twice: the first time it said 8, and the next time it said 30, as in seconds. Oh, my God! I still had three paragraphs to go and didn’t dare skip anything, for fear of confusing the person who was timing the slides.

When the talk was over, I went back to the hotel and scrubbed my face, then went for a swim in the rooftop pool (that could have been Harrison Ford in the hot tub), and then had a Negroni and lunch at the hotel bar. My brother and sister-in-law came to town later that day, and we had a bottle of wine in my hotel room. By then I had discovered that I could watch the talks on my laptop. Over the next few days, we ate Greek food and great sushi and Sockeye Salmon Candy and took ferries to Granville Island and North Vancouver and went to a comedy club and a medical marijuana dispensary.

At the farewell lunch on Friday, I met Julia Sweeney, the comedian who played Pat on “Saturday Night Live.” She had attended all the talks and delivered a final wrap-up, in which she pitched a pilot for a situation comedy in which she and I (“the New Yorker lady”) and a stylist who had given a talk shared an apartment in New York and disagreed over things like commas, semicolons, and slashes. I offered to play myself.


The wind is whipping the flags of Philadelphia. I’m staying at the Ritz-Carlton and have a view of City Hall, which is palatial. I was a guest last night at the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which was started by none other than Benjamin Franklin. Robin Black, a local writer whom I met last weekend in LA (was that just last weekend?), graciously shared the publication day of her book “Crash Course: Essays from Where Writing and Life Collide.” She read from her book, then invited me to read from my book, we talked about pet peeves, and then the audience, which comprised a singularly intelligent bunch of individuals, asked penetrating questions about commas and hyphens.

There was one staunch defender of the view that “none” is singular (I say it’s plural, unless it emphatically means “not a single one”). There were many who agreed with me that “they” is not singular. Someone asked if copy editors at The New Yorker have a hand in the cartoon captions, and I got to explain the captious relationship between the copy department and the cartoon editor. And someone asked about our policy on words like “Web site”; the editors of the New Yorker’s Web site would love it if we went with “website.”

Amtrak got me to Philly faster than the A train gets me to Rockaway. The streets of the city are all torn up. Before the talk, I had a drink with a friend’s brother-in-law, who is a lawyer. Bill helped me find the library, but did not come to the talk, and explained that it was his wife’s book-club night, and that Martha, his wife, had not been able to persuade the club to take up my book. This rolled right off my back. Thanks for trying, Martha.

The road in front of the library is under construction as they repair the pedestrian bridges over Benjamin Franklin Parkway. After the event, Betsy and Hilary, friends of friends dating back to college—what feels like Colonial days on the banks of the old Raritan—returned to the hotel with me for a nightcap. Workers were scoring the roads around the Ritz and filling the dents with fresh blacktop. (There is a word for that process, but I can’t think of it.) We risked getting tar on our soles when we crossed the street.

It was a perfect blend of business and pleasure. Just for the hell of it, this morning I am having breakfast delivered by room service.

phillycrashNIght Philly

Hello, Columbus

In Columbus I was the guest of the Crichton Club, which meets with a guest speaker three times a year. I signed their ninety-eight-year-old guestbook on the same page as Henry Petroski, author of “The Pencil.”

In the afternoon, I got a tour of the Thurber House on Jefferson Avenue. The house was not here—or, rather, it had not been refurbished—when I was doing research for my master’s thesis on Thurber, circa 1976. It has a bookshop with T-shirts (and pencils!), period furniture and original Thurber art, crazy hybrid light fixtures (it was converting from gas to electricity), photos of visiting writers (Art Buchwald, Ian Sandy Frazier). In the bedroom is a typewriter that belonged to Thurber. In his closet scores of writers have signed their names (Adam Gopnik, Anna Quindlen, Simon Winchester).

Columbus is shape shifter. There’s a lot of public art. Residents complain that its paper, the Dispatch, has shrunk. It has the traditional format, reduced to a miniature tabloid.

I am grateful to whoever suggested afterward that we go to Thurber’s Bar for a nightcap. It is one of the nicest hotel bars I’ve ever been in. Grateful, too, to Katharine Moore and her friend Bill, who took me around, and to Mark Allen, who came straight from the ACES conference in Portland to my talk, which was mostly about crusty characters from olden days (mine) at The New Yorker). I wore my new semicolon pin.

Below: Thurber House porch, a Thurber typewriter, Thurber’s Bar (in the hotel where his mother and brother lived).




Adelaide, here I come!

Last week,  spent an hour or so on the phone with Ilona Wallace, who writes for the Adelaide Review. I’ll be in Adelaide on Monday, November 30th, following the Interrobang Festival, in Melbourne. She wrote a really nice piece, one I am happy to share:

Wisconsin Book Festival

I couldn’t quite believe that CSPAN2 was going to broadcast live the events at the Madison Public Library on Saturday, or I’d have spent the time on the airplane preparing my spiel instead of reading Joanna Rakoff’s “My Salinger Year.” Thank you to Conor Moran, who invited me, and to Nancy Holyoke, who put me up (and put up with me), and to everyone who came to my talk at high noon on Saturday.

Wisconsin is beautiful. My only regret is that I forgot to stock up on cheese curd.

You can watch the whole thing here, complete with gaffes. I left out all the profanity, in deference to … what?


Due to a technical error, any e-mail sent to me through this site between about April 27 and May 27 fell into a crevasse in cyberspace. I’m very sorry, because I love hearing from people, and I always intend to respond, though in many cases this hasn’t happened yet. I am especially sorry if someone sent me the details of a surefire plan to adapt BETWEEN YOU AND ME into a long-running musical comedy. PUNCTUATION: THE MUSICAL.

From the Chicago Tribune

Way back in March, I was interviewed by Christopher Borrelli, of the Chicago Tribune, and I just now emboldened myself to see how his piece came out. Except that he called me “grandmotherly,” it came out pretty well. Here’s the link:

On the Train

I was already home in bed on Tuesday night when the train from Washington D.C. to New York Penn Station derailed outside Philadelphia. I’d spent the day in Washington, being interviewed by Jeff Brown for PBS NewsHour, in a library, and then talking with Kojo Naamdi, who has a show on WAMU radio studio. A linguist named Cynthia Gordon was also on the show, and I was so relieved that she did not attack me as a benighted prescriptionist. A woman named Christina, who had a nice wide smile, chauffeured me around, past gardens and landmarks, stopping at the Martin Luther King Memorial so that I could have a look around before she dropped me off at Union Station.

I had a ticket for Train No. 2172, leaving at 4 PM. I headed for the quiet car and scored a window seat, in a sneaky kind of way. A man had stopped at that seat, but then continued up toward the front of the car, so I slung my bag onto it. The man in the seat behind me said, “I think that seat is taken.” I said, “I don’t see anyone.” You have to leave something on the seat to stake your claim to it, right? I did not look up as the man came back to claim his seat, and he took the aisle seat behind me, next to his defender. I suppose they exchanged looks, shrugs. Maybe someone’s lips formed the word “bitch.” Oh, well. Can I help it if I like a window seat?

The train slowed down somewhere along the way, and there was an announcement about signal problems. That was when I looked out the window and thought, Trains sometimes derail. I always have thoughts of doom when an airplane takes off—lately, I’ve thought, Well, if the plane crashes, my book sales will soar—but it’s rare that I experience anything but joy when I board a train. We sped up again, and after a while I lurched through the quiet car and the not-so-quiet car behind it to the cafe for a beer. I was struck by the sight of the rows and rows of businessmen, with only an occasional well-dressed woman. I asked the man running the cafe, “Is this a good job?” I thought it looked like a great job: a galley kitchen on a moving train? Give me that job! He said yes: “It’s a government job—good pension.” I asked if he’d had to work his way up to the cafe. “Ten years,” he said.

The train arrived in Penn Station at about seven o’clock, and the conductor announced that there would be a change of crew, so passengers remaining on the train should keep their tickets out. I detrained, maneuvered my suitcase onto the escalator, and wheeled it home. I always feel lucky that I live within walking distance of Penn Station—I can go anywhere. The next morning, seeing the news, I felt even luckier. We were all lucky—passengers, conductors, engineers, with or without window seats and government pensions. We made it home.




What an honor and a pleasure it was to be invited to Wellesley, one of the Seven Sisters, to talk about the process of writing my book. I met David Godine, who forgave me for spreading misinformation about the inventor of the comma, and the writers Belinda Rathbone and Angela Flournoy, and many lovely Wellesley women. It was especially nice that my friend Deni came down and had me sign books for her and her family. Plus I saw a swan:




And, in Wellesley Books, this nice sight:



O Happy Dog!

The Happy Dog, on Cleveland’s West Side was the perfect venue for a reading and celebration. It is a classic Cleveland bar: low corner brick building, with one small high window, so no one can tell who’s in there drinking. I took the Rapid Transit from the Terminal Tower to West 65th Street, dazzled by the sights: the graceful arc of a bridge over the Flats (the Detroit-Superior?), crews paddling on the snaky Cuyahoga, forsythia in the scrub along the tracks, trees frothy with blossoms. Every city looks better in the spring. I walked up 65th from Lorain to Detroit, using St. Colman’s to orient myself. I had once stayed overnight with a friend who lived in this neighborhood, and we had gone to Mass there, and I knew to keep it on my right as I headed north, toward the lake. Navigating by Catholic churches and Lake Erie: I was definitely back in Cleveland.

I meet the organizers at a restaurant called Spice in an area now known as Gordon Square. The event was organized by Anne Trubek, someone whom, before last night, I had known only from a distance and online. She is the founder of Rust Belt Chic and Belt Magazine, in which she recently printed an excerpt from my book, choosing the chapter about the pencil-sharpener museum, and she is a powerhouse. She thinks we would fight about grammar and usage and punctuation, and maybe we would, but it would be fun. From our table at Spice we could see people filing into the Happy Dog. There went my cousins! I got nervous and stopped eating halfway through my grilled artichoke.

It was cousins I spotted first when I went into the joint (“joint” is the perfect word for this kind of Cleveland bar): Carl and Catherine and their eager young daughter Jane, who is thrilled to be related to an author. I recognized my former geometry teacher, Joanne Madison, ex-Sister Joanne Dula, who is married and retired from the I.R.S. Suddenly a former classmate appeared—the one who takes charge of class reunions—and I felt exactly as I did when she appeared in gym class in high school. My friend Patti, whose pleasure in my book’s success seems to exceed my own, said hi, and Paula, who was at the New York party and drove to Cleveland to be at this one, too. Strangers started pressing books on me to sign. Finally, I had to say, “Do you mind waiting? I have to concentrate.”

To prepare, I had looked in the index under “Cleveland.” I made short work of the section indexed under “author’s youth in” (foot-checking, milk route) and read from the chapter on gender, in which my fabulous sister Baby Dee acquired her first pairs of ladies’ shoes in the Euclid Arcade. For my parents, I read from the chapter on profanity (cousins visiting from California had already heard in San Francisco), and, just to punctuate the evening, I read from the chapter on dashes, about the uppercase Dashes of Meadowbrook Avenue, who were customers of Charles Chips.

I almost forgot the Q&A part of the evening—I’d begun to think of it solely as a celebration—and this was a challenging group to field questions from. Some German women who had learned English as a second language wanted to scold Americans for their bad grammar. Charles Michener, a former colleague who moved back to Cleveland, challenged my use of the “s” on “backwards”; I think he just wanted me to know he was there. Later, in the ladies’ room, a woman who works in advertising buttonholed me to say that she is reviled by her friends for eschewing the serial comma. I was able to comfort her. A woman who gradually came into focus as the mother of my late friend Mary Beth Richlovsky spoke up about her daughter’s and my friendship. I think somehow staying in touch with me helps her keep Mary Beth alive.

There are others who are no longer with us who would have been proud and amazed to know that I had succeeded in publishing a book, among them my mother and father. I am so grateful that there were people at the Happy Dog last night who could picture my mother whooping it up and my father taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes.


crewing on the C



(Last image by Paul Putman. Thanks!)

Boston Athenaeum

Though I am still not sure how to pronounce the word “athenaeum,” I am more than flattered to have been a guest there. I arrived at South Street Station, where a lovely woman named Ginny Bride met me and drove me to the hotel. The room wasn’t ready yet, so I changed in the ladies’ room in the basement, then Ginny drove me to the Athenaeum. Gorgeous room, nice man hooking up my microphone, wonderful partner onstage—Peter Sokolowski, of the Merriam-Webster Company—and an amazing audience for a Tuesday afternoon. I met Barbara Wallraff, famous Boston wordsmith, and Linda Lowenthal, who gave me a wonderful review in the Boston Globe. Best of all was seeing old friends in line to get books signed. And they dug up a custom-printed Blackwing to give me as a souvenir. Thanks!


In Albany

Drove up the Taconic to Albany, where I spoke with Don Faulkner, of the New York State Writers Institute, and met William Kennedy, the author of “Ironweed,” and got a nighttime tour of the capital—amazing, crazy architecture!—after giving a reading in the New York State Museum. Signed lots of books! (It’s easier than writing them.) Lauren McIntyre, a former New Yorker colleague, was there with friends. It was great to see her. And the bakers of Albany made a fantastic lemon cake, a slice of which I shall have for breakfast.

Thank you, writers, librarians, readers, questers, and bakers of Albany, for having me.

ACES is aces with me

Oh my God, there is a HUGE coal barge going down the river—the Monongahela, I believe—outside my hotel-room window. I am really enjoying being in Pittsburgh for this conference of the American Copy Editors Society. Never have I heard so many people conversing with such passion about the plural “they” and the O.E.D. and gerundive phrases. I took time off from grammar today to walk across a bridge, ride up an incline (they have funiculars!), walk along a ridge above the river, take another incline down, and have an indulgent lunch at a place called the Grand Concourse—like Grand Central or the fancy restaurant at the Amsterdam train station, with a stained-glass rotunda and a view of the train tracks running alongside the river. I love Pittsburgh! It’s the Flats of Cleveland on a monumental scale, with better rivers. And stained glass! And funiculars!

Just came across a blog post that a young journalist named Katie Antonsson wrote about the talk I gave yesterday, and it’s so nice that I’m just going to link to it here and take the rest of the day off. Thanks, ACES, for the wonderful reception and for buying those forty copies of my book. And also thanks to the woman who bought me a beer while I was signing the forty copies. I can’t remember your name, but I’ll never forget you. I miss this place already and I’m not even gone yet.