Pamela Paul on Her Long Path to Becoming a Writer and Editor
Will Schwalbe Talks to the New York Times Editor
on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. Last night, on the way home from work, I ducked into one of my favorite bookstores and headed right for the travel section. A friend had been talking about taking his dream trip to Greece. He told me that he had been saving for years, so I thought I would find a guidebook or two to give him for his birthday. But first I wanted to travel the world a bit with my eyes. I went from Istanbul, to Brazil, to Vienna, and finally to Costa Rica—book after book showing me monuments, museums, and, of course, restaurants and night markets. Then I heard a voice: “Oh, are you going to Costa Rica” The voice was Australian. I said no, just dreaming about it. “It’s one of my favorite places,” the Australian told me. She described a magical visit just weeks before. She then let me know she had just landed in New York—her first trip here! I love my hometown so I gave her all my best advice about where to go (Brooklyn Bridge a must) and where to eat in NYC (Corner Bistro, best burger). We wished each other well and then both went on our way, me to the register and her to another section. And that’s when it struck me—whether you can travel or not, there’s no better place to meet adventuresome people who are curious about the world than in the travel section of your local bookseller or library. And recently I got to talking about the gifts of travel with today’s guest.
Pamela Paul: I’m Pamela Paul. I’m the editor of The New York Times Book Review and I oversee book coverage at the Times, and I also write in my copious spare time.
WS: Pamela Paul hosts The New York Times’ weekly Book Review podcast. She is also the author of books including My Life with Bob, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony and How to Raise a Reader. Her writing has appeared in Time magazine, The Economist and The Atlantic.
PP: I grew up in a fairly nondescript town on Long Island with which I associated as little as possible. My parents divorced when I was a pretty young, somewhere around the age of three or four. And my dad moved to the city where he lived on the Upper West Side, and that’s where I spent most of my weekend as a child and sort of longed to be rather than on this town on Long Island.
WS: Pamela found herself escaping into books a lot of the time.
PP: Anytime there was a proposal sort of at hand to do something, I thought I’d rather stay home and read and I didn’t consider reading to be a passion or an interest. It just felt like the default position. It felt like, well, that’s kind of like what you do because you really can’t do anything else.
WS: The library became a fundamental part of Pamela’s childhood.
PP: We didn’t buy a lot of books because we didn’t have a lot of money, I had a little bookshelf. The answer when I asked my mother if I could get a book was, “Get it at the library,” which was a reasonable thing for her to say because the library was three blocks from the house and right across the street from the school where I went. I was your typical under-parented child of the seventies and eighties. Beginning from the age of seven, I walked myself to school and back by myself. And I would always stop at the library after school because. The only thing waiting at home were my four brothers, two of whom controlled the remote control to the television, which only marginally had cable, which was highly restricted and therefore it was sort of a question of Gilligan’s Island versus the Brady Bunch and other things I really had no desire to watch.
WS: Pamela began to seek out all kinds of books to fill the time.
PP: I paid a lot of attention to things like awards and medals. So if something was a Newbery medalist, I was gonna read it. If it had that emblem on it, that was like a seal of approval. So I read all of the Newbery medalists, and you know, occasionally the Honor books, too. I was a huge Beverly Cleary, Judy Bloom, Nancy Drew fan. Paula Danziger. There was Scott O’Dell Island of the Blue Dolphins and Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time. I also was in particular obsessed with biography as a child. There was a wall of biographies in the public library.
WS: She was particularly drawn to stories about women.
PP: There was one series in particular that I adored because it had these very nice, highly idealized illustrations of whoever was being profiled. It didn’t matter if Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton were homely. And in these books, these people were inevitably adorable as children with little like golden ringlets and beautiful as adults, which makes me sound very superficial and I probably was. But I did like to go through, in particular, all of the girl biographies, any biography that was of a woman and there were few and far between. It was essentially nurses and first ladies.
WS: Pamela used biography to guide her through her adolescence.
PP: I think I was looking for in those books for what I still look for in biography a lot of the time, which is advice. I look to see how other people live their lives and that for me, it’s always been self help in its way. And again, because I was a child with no particular passions or interests, it wasn’t like I knew that I wanted to be a doctor from a young age and therefore knew the path. So I thought if I read stories about other people and how they figured out who it was that they were and how they became who they would become, that somehow I would have an answer. And I also liked reading from an early age and still do any story of overcoming hardship. You know, I couldn’t read enough about Helen Keller. To me, Helen Keller was just a goddess among goddesses.
WS: Learning about others helped her put her own life into perspective.
PP: I remember a particularly shaming moment in elementary school where I was out at recess and I remember standing by myself on the concrete and I think I had recently moved to town. I’d moved there in, in second grade and um, I didn’t really have many friends and I sort of didn’t have an established recess posse. Dodgeball was the main thing that people did and that struck me is like, I mean, just cruel and painful. And I wanted nothing to do with it.
So I was standing there and someone ran up to me and said the flood is over and ran away and joined another group of people. And I think that I remained confused for a good four or five years as to what that meant, and what it means, in case you don’t know and weren’t made fun of in that particular way, is that your pants were too short. So it essentially was like a very classist thing to say because it meant that you couldn’t afford pants in the right size. And in my case, I did always wear hand me downs. So they like they got me. And I thought, well, whatever the pain associated with that incident, it was sort of nothing compared to being deaf and blind.
WS: Pamela was not big on hobbies like art, music or dance, and preferred putting her time elsewhere.
PP: I really, really, really liked working. And so after school every day I always had jobs and I always had, beginning around the age of 14, more than one job. So I’d like to work after school and I arranged, eventually, my schedule at school so that I could get out early, so that I could work even more. So I worked at a restaurant, I worked at a bakery, I worked at a factory, I worked at a supermarket, I worked at another restaurant, I worked at Laura Ashley, but the greatest job of all was working at a bookstore, which I could only do once I got my driver’s license and I was able to drive to work.
WS: Being surrounded by books all day, she began to document each one she read.
PP: I started keeping my Bob, which stands for Book of Books, when I was 17.
WS: This journal would inspire her memoir, My Life with Bob, which documents her relationship with reading. Pamela found books especially helpful as she struggled to pick a career her senior year of college.
PP: I was feeling really lost and confused about what I was going to do with my life. I would inevitably go into this bookstore and instead of looking at, you know, What Color is Your Parachute? and career guides, I would just go to the travel section cause I thought, you know, let me get out of here.
WS: She thought about being an advertising copywriter.
PP: That was mostly because that’s what my mom had done and it seemed to me like a very appealing job. I mean she actually, speaking of appealing, she would come home from work and have to do these things like come up with a tagline for Chiquita banana, like it’s banana appeal and things like that. And she could do it. She could come up with like 18 of them in like 10 minutes. She just knew how to do it. And I thought, well that’s fun and easy and I could do that. Now I should say that even though I wanted to go into publishing or advertising, the truth is that neither of those things are what I actually wanted to do. I wouldn’t even admit to myself what I actually wanted to do because it was so undoable that it wasn’t, it wasn’t worth acknowledging. I just decided it wasn’t an option, which was to write. And that just wasn’t a thing that you could pay your bills with. So that wasn’t going to happen.
WS: Instead, Pamela applied for jobs that kept her close to the writing world. She set her sights on New York or Chicago.
PP: Chicago was where Leo Burnett was, which was a big agency at the time. And Quaker Oats. I was in the interview and I found myself saying, “I really like Captain Crunch, but only with Crunch Berries because you sort of need the tartness of the berry to offset that sort of general sweetness of the main cereal.” And I was just going on about this and the interviewer interrupted me and he said, “You know, many of us here at Quaker Oats enjoy Captain Crunch, too. But really, why do you want to work at Quaker Oats?” Because that was the question I was trying to answer. And it was one of those moments, too, where you sort of see yourself from a bird’s eye view and you’re looking at yourself and you’re like, “What am I saying?” And he was sort of waiting for me to answer the question. And I finally, I said, “I actually don’t want to work at Quaker Oats. I’m really sorry to have wasted your time. Thanks very much.” And I walked out.
WS: Pamela went back to the drawing board.
PP: On my way out, I canceled all of my interviews that were sort of lined up with Career Services and I went to the bookstore and I picked up A Journey of One’s Own. And this is a book by this woman, Thalia Zepatos, who’s this really kind of adventure seeking and trepid woman: nothing like me at all. This is a person who would ride a camel across the Sahara and would solo canoe on a salt lake. I kept looking at that book because it felt like, well, all of the things that I like doing, that I have liked doing, have led me to this sort of dead end point where I can’t really get a job and anything that I would like and any job that I could get, I can’t really afford. And I thought maybe I haven’t been looking at the right set of choices, like maybe I’ve only been considering A through D and I don’t know what E through Z are because I haven’t been exposed to them or I’ve decided from an early age that that just wasn’t my thing or that I couldn’t do it. And I thought Thalia Zepatos and the stories that she recounts in this book, A Journey of One’s Own, is doing all the kinds of things that are in that E to Z category.
WS: Caught at a crossroads, Pamela came up with a bold idea to figure out career choices E though Z.
PP: I came up with this little plan that really was like a lark and almost like a dare that was theoretical only, which is like, what if I were to deliberately set out to do something that I had zero interest in doing and that I don’t think that I could do and that I think I might hate? And what would that look like? And so to my mind it meant I would need to go somewhere where I couldn’t rely on any of the things that I relied on for the previous 22 years of my life. On the daily granular level, I thought I needed to go somewhere where I cannot go about my routine. I can’t wake up in the morning and make myself a cup of coffee and I can’t read The New York Times, which are sort of my, you know, that was like my bread and butter. And then I thought on a grander level, I need to go somewhere where I have no job, where I don’t know what I’ll be doing and I don’t know anybody and nobody can help me out. And where every single thing that I have assumed will not be true.
WS: Pamela bought a one-way ticket to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
PP: This was around March of my senior year of college and it also felt like once I’d made that decision, it felt like it felt decisive, you know, which is a rare thing. At least it was a rare thing for me to finally know what I was going to do. And the way in which I cemented it was by telling people, because I thought, once you tell people there’s no going back.
WS: She packed some familiar books to help her through this foreign journey.
PP: I brought A Journey of One’s Own, I brought with me Anna Karenina, which was the second book I read when I was there. I brought Moby Dick. You bring the kinds of books that you think like they’re a little bit of desert island books because there was going to be no access to anything else.
WS: Pamela found a job to pay her daily living expenses.
PP: I got a job at an international school that was just starting out. That was its first year of operation and therefore they had no idea what they were doing, which is why they hired someone like me to teach American history. I had been a history major and specialized in American history. So that was kind of a dream come true, especially because I had only one student and she was a good student.
WS: But she also got jobs that spoke to her passion for literature.
PP: I was also assigned to be the librarian at the school and the school had maybe like 200 books, but it was my ideal job. What I did get to do, which I loved, and I approached with like every amount of enthusiasm was create posters to get the children engaged in reading. So, with my really poor art skills, I got to make reading posters to encourage the kids to check out books.
WS: Her time in Thailand and reading A Journey of One’s Own taught her an important lesson.
PP: Your life isn’t one long trajectory. It’s sort of a series of different lives and that you can, at any time, sort of change the life that you’re living. Which I know sounds like some kind of really bad self-help book or terrible motto and It never occurred to me that that choice that I was making upon graduation wasn’t a lifetime choice. I thought it was like the game of Life, you know, that board game that like once you had picked like the college path or like the work path, that was it. You were on that path. You could not deviate from the road. And what I learned from A Journey of One’s Own is that you could deviate, but that it required you to be open to it.
WS: Pamela’s new outlook allowed her to move forward with less hesitation. She wrapped up her time in Thailand with plans to go to Hong Kong.
PP: I thought, well, in Hong Kong I’m going to need to get a real job because it’s an industrialized city and the cost of living is going to be more expensive. And so what I need to do is I need to go home to New York and then I need to drive up to Providence in order to go to Career Services so that I can look up, in the files there, the names of some alumni so that I at least have some people that I can call to try to get a job because maybe I’ll be able to afford like a month’s rent before I have to work. But as I was doing this, a fax came in and the fax was for a job at Scholastic in publishing. And I thought if I were to stay in New York, that’s the kind of job I would want because I would feel really good about what I was doing. It’s educational publishing for children and for teachers and it’s something, it’s selling something, but it’s something that I feel strongly about.
WS: She applied for the position.
PP: And I got the job and I took the job and I had that job for three years. I had a really good boss who mentored me. So I was promoted four times very quickly until I was running the department when I was 27. And it was a department of publishing, a little micro department I should say, it was not big. And I loved it, but I also felt like as a single person at 27 with no sign of kids in sight and like I kind of wanted to get out of the kid’s world at the time. So I applied for a job at Time Inc, where I was part of a department that created books based on the Time Inc. magazines and I had visions of working on like beautiful coffee table books of Life magazine, photographs from World War II and history.
And instead I got put on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar and it was so antithetical to everything that I believed in and wanted to do. And I felt horrible about it. Before I could really even contemplate a way out of this job, I got engaged to someone who said, “I’m going to grad school in London—let’s go.” And I was like, “Sure thing.”
WS: That openness would lead her to a career she’d never thought was possible before.
PP: It really did have a lifelong impact because if I hadn’t gone to London, I also would never have started writing professionally, which is what I started doing when I was there. I didn’t have working papers and I ended up getting a column in The Economist on global arts, a monthly column. And that was my start in writing.
WS: Putting herself in new worlds, be that through books or travel, allowed Pamela to see herself differently, too.
PP: When I talk to people who want to be writers, I urge them to sort of go out and discover the world a little bit so that they have something to write about, something outside their own existence. And I think part of what this book is about, the independent traveler aspect of it, is about disconnecting from the things that you know, and at the time that I read it, that was easier.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Pamela Paul. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.