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Taffy Brodesser-Akner explores wealth and family trauma in 'Long Island Compromise'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. "Long Island Compromise" is a new novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and it opens with a kidnapping. The year is 1980, and Carl Fletcher, a wealthy businessman, is taken for ransom from the driveway of his palatial home on Long Island. After his family pays the ransom, Carl returns to his wife and kids, determined to continue their privileged lives. Forty years later, however, they're anything but normal. Anxiety, sex addiction and depression have taken hold to all three of his children. And as their family fortune dwindles, it becomes clear that none of them have faced their family's biggest trauma.

"Long Island Compromise" is Taffy Brodesser-Akner's second novel. She adapted her first best-selling book, "Fleishman Is In Trouble," into the FX on Hulu series under the same name, where she served as the writer, showrunner, and executive producer. Taffy is also a staff writer with the New York Times.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER: It is so great to be here, Tonya. Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: So, Taffy, this book is loosely inspired by something that really happened to someone that you grew up hearing about. Tell us a little bit about that. And what about that story, aside from it being really a big deal, captured your imagination?

BRODESSER-AKNER: Well, I grew up knowing a man who was kidnapped. And because you're a child, and you've sort of always known that story, it takes on different meaning for you as you get older. And then one day - I think this happens with any circumstance that you sort of wake up to - you suddenly understand, oh, my God, I know someone who was kidnapped.

But as I was growing up, it was a very regular thing that I knew that my father's friend, Jack Teich, had been kidnapped out of his driveway in 1974, held in a closet for a week and returned home safely for a ransom after a very harrowing rescue and ransom drop. And it was just something I always knew.

Years and years later, I wanted to write a book about money. I did not write about the Teich family. I was writing a book about a generic family with money because I was grappling with the question of what money does to you. Does growing up with money and security make you kind of useless? And does growing up without it make you into someone who knows in her heart that she could survive if she had to? And which is better? And...

MOSLEY: Because when you were a child and you were hearing this story - you were kind of ashamed to say it, but for a long time, you weren't thinking, what an awful thing. You were thinking, imagine being rich enough to be kidnapped.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Yes. That's what I would think, which is - you know, I am happy to report that my sense of compassion and empathy have grown over the years. But it was just a thing that I thought on occasion.

And when I sat down to write this book, I could not help but use this kidnapping because what is better than a kidnapping to make the point that I wanted to make, which was there's no answer to that question, because the money that made it so that you were kidnappable also brought you home. So which is it? Is it good, or is it bad? And I loved the way the question sort of ate itself, and you couldn't really answer it. And that, to me, is sort of where I landed.

MOSLEY: This question also evolved and morphed because it had you thinking about your own life. You were asking yourself, is it better to come from money and never feel afraid or to be someone who had to become scrappy and survive? So take me to that time period when you were writing this and you were grappling with those questions because you actually wrote this before "Fleishman Is In Trouble."

BRODESSER-AKNER: I started writing it before "Fleishman Is In Trouble." I started writing it under the strangest circumstances. I was on a 12-day work trip to Russia for ESPN The Magazine to cover the U.S.'s only male synchronized swimmer and his...


BRODESSER-AKNER: ...And - I know. We could do a whole thing on that. And his quest for Olympic gold - and ESPN had a high word rate. They were assigning the story at a great length, and we were in desperate need of the money. We had just moved from Los Angeles to New Jersey.

MOSLEY: Because the word rate - just to explain this - the longer the piece, the more money you're going to make.

BRODESSER-AKNER: The longer the piece, the more money you're going to make - and a magazine like ESPN The Magazine, which took long-form stories so seriously and had a good amount of money to give its writers - it was just this ideal thing.

They signed it at 8,000 words. It ran at 12,000. And it fixed a problem that we had, which was that when we moved to New Jersey, we started renting this house, and the landlord was sort of harassing us to leave. She kept wanting us out of the house. And awoken in me was this sort of vestigial, primal - somebody is threatening my home. Why am I always in this position?

And I felt like, you know what? We need to get ahead somehow. So I was going to write this story and make some money, which is not a lot of money. It's just some money. And when you're a freelancer, some money is a lot of money. And in Russia, the reason I was there for 12 days is because the events were on day one and day 12. So I had all this time in the middle...

MOSLEY: Between.

BRODESSER-AKNER: ...To be miserable in this town in Russia with nothing else to do and to sit down and say, you know what? I am going to figure out a way to write about this. And I had 70 pages by the time I left Russia.

MOSLEY: Seventy pages - the book is almost 500 pages. Is it true that there are 1,500 more pages that you cut?

BRODESSER-AKNER: There are more than that. I will correct you and say, the book is 440 pages long, which is not almost 500.

MOSLEY: I said almost. Well, look.

BRODESSER-AKNER: It's closer to 500 than 300, let's say. But just for the reader who's considering...

MOSLEY: All right. Yes.

BRODESSER-AKNER: ...What he or she wants to...

MOSLEY: Yes. Yes.

BRODESSER-AKNER: ...Engage in.

MOSLEY: But you wrote with such fervor because it's a topic that you felt passionate about, and it also centers around so many things that you struggle with. You're asking yourself about wealth but also around identity. And I want to get to that. But the book centers on the outcomes of Carl Fletcher's children, all of whom have been traumatized one way or another by Carl's kidnapping.

There's Nathan, the oldest. He's a lawyer. He's passive and neurotic and full of anxiety. There's Bernard, aka Beamer. He's this reckless Hollywood screenwriter who reenacts his father's kidnapping over and over in his scripts. And then there is Jenny. She's the youngest. She's the most conscious about the negative impacts of her family's wealth. And she's lost. She's not sure what value she contributes to the world, and because of that, she suffers from this debilitating depression.

It is hard, Taffy, to feel sorry for rich people. And yet, somehow, you've actually done it with this book. Was it easy for you to get there? - that level of compassion you needed to write in such a raw way.

BRODESSER-AKNER: It was easy to get there in that I have a long history of writing about celebrities. And the circumstances of writing about a celebrity are that you show up to their home, or you show up to their jet, or you show up to their Ferrari, or you show up to their yacht. And you have to write a story that isn't just about the unique circumstances of the fact that it's always a journalist, historically not a high-paying job, who is sent to do this. And you have to put that aside and figure out who the actual person is. And I think that that's the goal of all writing is to humanize those that we can only see from far away, to bring them close, and to make them into humans. But you are right that I started writing this before "Fleishman." The problem I had was - and the reason I didn't finish it before "Fleishman" - was because I could not figure out the tone to take where you can look at these people, feel that kind of envy, and then also make your way into their human experience, which is not exactly as different as yours.

MOSLEY: How did you get there?

BRODESSER-AKNER: I got there by knowing that nobody wants to read a 440-page book with - where the writer has contempt for her subjects. I know that all writing is making a case for something. And what I wanted to make a case for, what I learned was that I wasn't really writing a book about money or I had told myself I was writing a book about money. I was writing a book about trauma. I was writing a book about what happens after something big happens, and the something big is either historical or it's still there. But either way, it hovers like an assassin in your home. And the trick is that if you look the assassin directly in the eye, it will kill you. So you just walk around quietly trying to pretend this assassin isn't there holding a gun over you.

MOSLEY: This makes me think about the last time we spoke. And I was asking about the characters and "Fleishman Is In Trouble" and one in particular, one character in particular, that seemed to mirror your life in a lot of different ways. And you talked about how when you write all of the characters are, in essence, you. They come from your mind, your experiences. And, of course, the research that goes into making these people feel real based on who they are within the book. Do you ever find yourself not liking one of your characters, like, literally feeling annoyed or tired by them?

BRODESSER-AKNER: I mean, I find myself not liking myself...


BRODESSER-AKNER: ...To just bring the question back around. Sure, all the time. But I don't really seek likability in people. I am surrounded by likable people. I work with liable people, I live with likable people. That's great. But literature, to me, should not be a representation of the likable. It should be a representation of the real. So I guess I don't even think in those metrics really, but I imagine some of these people, if you apply likability to them, I don't think they're less liable than I am, and I think I'm only sort of medium likable.

MOSLEY: (Laughter) If you're just joining us, I'm talking with the New York Times staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She's written a new novel called "Long Island Compromise," inspired by the actual abduction of a wealthy businessman and what follows after. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: So this is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today I'm talking with Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She's written a new novel called "Long Island Compromise," and it's a story that's set in the 1980s, and it centers on a wealthy businessman who was kidnapped from his driveway in an affluent neighborhood on Long Island, brutalized and held for ransom. He returns home to his wife and kids, and they all appear to move on with their lives until 40 years later, when it's apparent that no one has really gotten over it. Taffy Brodesser-Akner adapted her previous novel, "Fleishman Is In Trouble," into a limited FX series on Hulu.

Let's talk a little bit about another really big character in the book. And that's this fictional town, Middle Rock...


MOSLEY: ...On Long Island. The Fletchers are a Jewish family, who, as you describe it, are living the American dream in the shadow of the Holocaust. And I want you to read an excerpt from the book that describes what that looks like for the wealthy Jewish people who live in 1980s Middle Rock.

BRODESSER-AKNER: (Reading) If Rabbi Weintra (ph) was correct, and all families are a Bible story unto themselves, then the history of Middle Rock and its people and the Fletchers, of course, doesn't end there. Middle Rock flourished, a haven away from the horrors of its people's history. It became the first American suburb to achieve a full half-Jewish population. And within a few years, the place looked like a WASPy country club. When the Jews escaped from Europe to America en mass in the '30s and '40s, they looked around at where they could most easily fit in and lay low, and they found cover in the WASPs that populated the country. In Middle Rock, they wore boat shoes and took sailing lessons. Every mother had canvas boat bags from L.L. Bean. They wore Bermuda shorts and polo shirts with popped collars. They fixed their noses into pointy things and dyed their hair blonde and founded pool clubs and boat clubs so that the transformation was complete, and no one would be able to pick them out from the general population and send them into slavery or off to concentration camps again, their very own Canaan.

MOSLEY: You're not just interrogating wealth. You're interrogating a very specific experience, and that's what it means to be wealthy and Jewish American.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Yeah. You know, Jews and wealth - it's such a strange topic. It almost feels seditious to talk about it, especially to a wide audience. But it's profound to me. You know, the wealth in certain Jewish populations, and certainly, I do not know a majority of Jews to be wealthy. But in cases like this, what it seemed to me was the sort of amassing of money because look at what they had just come out of. What else was going to protect you? If you knew, if you had just come from an experience where the thing about you that was inherent and unchangeable made you so hateable and so killable to people - what could you do to make it so that this didn't happen again?

And in a capitalist society, which is what we have, and here, especially in this section of the book before the middle class disappears, it's about it's about gathering and creating as much protection as is possible.

MOSLEY: Right. So what this goes on to after that chapter is there's the second book of the Fletcher family testament. And these are the pressures to keep up in order to continue to have that protection. And part of that is to adhere to the culture and religion and tradition. And so Carl, at the time of his kidnapping, he runs a factory. But this wasn't his dream. He was forced to take it over after his father died and so his dreams were never realized. So there's the kidnapping in that context. And that seems like one trauma after a long line of traumas, which is the biggest of all, which is the Holocaust. And this family, though, gains its wealth from creating Styrofoam.


MOSLEY: And they own a Styrofoam factory. Why did you choose Styrofoam as a representation, also a reason for their wealth and also their demise?

BRODESSER-AKNER: Well, they would correct you and say polystyrene because it sounds less awful. But you are correct, it is Styrofoam. I could not resist Styrofoam because, first of all, I wanted a factory. I was always so interested in factory wealth, in the sort of, like, boring but kind of ingenious thing that was created in order to build a life - the sort of boring job that you would have running a factory that would give you a life you could not have dreamed of. And Styrofoam was so irresistible to me because look what it is. It is this insulation. It protects, even as it destroys the world around you.

MOSLEY: You've actually been teaching lately, right? You've been teaching a class at NYU, dramatic writing.

BRODESSER-AKNER: I taught a dramatic writing class this year, yes, from the program I graduated from, in the program.

MOSLEY: Yeah. What's it like - yeah - going back to your alma mater as this bona fide success? - because you've talked about quite a bit in previous interviews, even the last time we talked, about how teachers and bosses had told you early on in your career that you weren't a good writer.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Right. And maybe - you know what? Maybe I wasn't. When I think - it's funny. I went back to teach. I taught this totally wonderful class of seniors about to graduate their capstone class. And I would remember so much of what I was taught. And what I was taught - I think I maybe took the things I was taught too literally. I was trying to be obedient when I was writing screenplays right out of college. I was writing, you know, a romantic comedy with a clumsy but beautiful woman who doesn't know she's beautiful until she takes off her glasses. And she falls a lot.

MOSLEY: (Laughter) Right.

BRODESSER-AKNER: And who wanted that? I was trying to be obedient. But actually, the stakes in writing, especially as a new writer, are so low because nobody really cares that why don't you just do something original? It was actually writing journalism that taught me because I wrote so much of it, and I had so much interaction with my audience before Twitter imploded, before social media became so, so toxic, that I came to understand that the audience is so much more sophisticated than anyone teaching me writing in the '90s had conveyed to me, maybe because I wasn't so sophisticated yet.

I think a lot about something I learned in my Jewish day school, which is that you're not allowed to learn - I hope that I'm saying this correctly. You're not allowed to learn mysticism until you're 40 because you're not wise enough yet. And I think about that. Like, if you know somebody who's a writer and is 25, that person has so long to go before their contributions are considered enormously meaningful. And that person is very courageous because that person can see the field. That person knows it. That person is going to watch all of their peers become more successful as teachers, doctors, lawyers, hosts of radio shows, publicists, anything, but being a writer, it takes a while.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is New York Times staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She's written a new novel called "Long Island Compromise." We'll be right back. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, talking with New York Times staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She's the author of a new novel called "Long Island Compromise." Taffy is also the writer, showrunner and executive producer of the FX on Hulu limited series "Fleishman Is In Trouble," an adaptation of her first best-selling novel. Her new book is about a wealthy businessman who is kidnapped, brutalized, and held for ransom. He returns home to his wife and kids, and they all appear to move on with their lives until 40 years later, when it's apparent that no one has really gotten over it.

You know, I went down this rabbit hole reading this thread online where someone asked for book recommendations, not about the Holocaust, where Jewish characters were the protagonists, but it's not exactly about the identity of being Jewish. And your book "Fleishman Is In Trouble" kept coming up on the thread. And "Long Island Compromise" really takes that to the next level because American Jewish traditions are really interwoven into every aspect of this story. Was that something that you set out to do when you were writing? I'm thinking about you back in the day when you're writing these stories about beautiful women who don't know they're beautiful and take off their glasses and then they're...


MOSLEY: And now you're writing this thing that feels truer and more connected to who you are.

BRODESSER-AKNER: I think that I've always been surprised, even in this book - you won't believe me, but even in this book at the questions that come up about being Jewish. I always think that there was this sort of essential question that maybe it's - I don't know who it started with, but I think of Philip Roth as grappling with it, which is, are Jews really considered American? I have been asked about both "Fleishman" and, more fairly, "Long Island Compromise," about them as Jewish books. And it will shock you to know that I did not think of either of them as particularly Jewish. I thought of them as books with Jews in them.

But I also think about "Crossroads," that great Jonathan Franzen book that came out a few years ago, and it's about a youth minister who lives in a rectory, and it's about a Christian youth group. And it was called an American novel. It was never called a Christian novel. And it's interesting to me that both of my novels are called Jewish novels, which, I guess...

MOSLEY: You don't call it that.

BRODESSER-AKNER: I don't. I mean...

MOSLEY: Because it says right on the back, an American story, an American novel.

BRODESSER-AKNER: I mean, I didn't write the copy on the back. The very wonderful people at Random House did. But I do think that it's surprising to me whenever I get these questions, because I guess it answers that question like, are Jews considered Americans? Kind of, I guess, is the answer, because, yes, you could write an American story on the back of this book. But your questions are going to be Jewy (ph).

MOSLEY: And I guess it also begs a question what is American if it doesn't encapsulate all of the stories that also includes being Jewish.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Right. I mean, not for me to answer. It's for me to observe whenever I put something out into the world. And I don't resent it. I don't dislike it. It's interesting to me in the way that you can't run from these questions. You can't run from it, no matter how assimilated you are.

MOSLEY: Growing up as an orthodox Jew in New York, how similar or different was your experience growing up from the Fletchers - aside from their wealth?

BRODESSER-AKNER: It's such a complicated question because I didn't necessarily grow up orthodox. My parents moved to Long Island when I was a baby from the city. They got divorced six years later. My mother moved to Brooklyn, which is where I was raised. And she became orthodox when I was 12. I have sisters, and they became orthodox with her, and I was the one holdout. I think the way you could say that that informed my experience as a writer is that it forced me into a position where these people that I absolutely loved were making very different decisions than I was. They had this passion for this thing that I didn't have. I had to reconcile it somehow. I could never figure out a way to distance myself enough to not be completely in love with all of them.

I think that's what a little bit made me into a writer. The idea that you have to - that you could be close enough to observe, close enough to love and still know that you are a separate entity. So I didn't grow up like this. I grew up in Brooklyn. My father still lived on Long Island, and he lived in a place like Middle Rock, and then he moved to the town he was from, which is Great Neck, which is perhaps a very close mirror of Middle Rock.

MOSLEY: You decided not to convert at a very young age. That says a lot about who you were as a child.

BRODESSER-AKNER: I mean, I felt so harassed by school. I felt so imprisoned by school. And I could not believe in light of that, that you would take any freedom you had. That's how I saw it. I don't see it like that anymore, but I would say, why would you take all your freedom and reduce it? We were born free, and you were opting into your own subjugation. If you put rules around what you could eat, when you could socialize, when you could eat. It felt like life was hard enough for me.

But I also watched up close, as my family found such profound happiness, comfort, like, life goals in it, and they are all - it is now inextricable from who they are, and they're all completely happy, even as I say that on a Passover Seder, I have my own seder in my house, and it does not resemble theirs in a lot of ways. And I think, you know, this is another announcement of my freedom that I could have - that I could sort of opt into a Jewish life on the terms that - where I enjoy it.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with the New York Times staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She's written a new novel called "Long Island Compromise," inspired by the actual abduction of a wealthy businessman and what follows after. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and I'm talking with Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She's written a new novel called "Long Island Compromise," and it's a story set in the 1980s, centered on a wealthy businessman who was kidnapped from his driveway in an affluent neighborhood on Long Island, brutalized and held for ransom. He returns home to his wife and kids, and they all appear to move on with their lives until 40 years later when it's apparent that no one has really gotten over it. Taffy Brodesser-Akner adapted her previous novel, "Fleishman Is In Trouble," into a limited series by the same name.

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew, were there ever moments - did you ever go through that time period in life where you were trying to assimilate? And did those attempts interfere or butt up against your mother's Orthodox home?

BRODESSER-AKNER: I went to a Jewish day school. It was not called assimilation. It was called rebellion. I'm going to wear pants where you guys are wearing skirts, and I'm going to eat this filet of fish while you guys are eating food that you brought from home. So that wasn't really called assimilation. But when I got out into the world at large, there were a lot of questions on how much do you hold on to your Jewish identity?

And the great answer that I came upon is that just like there's no way to tell someone what a woman is or what a Protestant is, there's - no one's allowed to tell you what a Jew is. We are all allowed to define it for ourselves. And when I realized that, I'd like to say that I was relieved and I had more freedom, but it felt even more like a burden, and it's the burden that I grapple with all the time.

MOSLEY: It's a burden why?

BRODESSER-AKNER: It's a burden because there is always - the thing hovering over American Judaism is how long can it last? I know that right now we're in a time of horrendous hate crimes against Jews. But we are also in a time where fewer and fewer people believe in God. Fewer and fewer people are finding community in their synagogues or in their JCCs or in their YMHAs or wherever it is that Jews found community, but more - sort of more urgently, I would say, there are - the amount of people who feel guilty if they don't go to synagogue on Yom Kippur is smaller and smaller every year. And so now you're talking about, you know, a self-manifested extinction event. And that's a burden, you know?

To decide to live your own life is to make decisions about the Jewish future if you're Jewish because there aren't that many of us. It might seem like there are, but there aren't that many of us. It's not the - you know, it's not the same as being a Christian. It's not the same as any one of the flavors of Christianity or Catholicism. There just aren't that many of us. And when we decide to drop anchor - as someone recently told me the phrase drop anchor - we're making a decision that affects a community at large, and every generation seems to flatten a little bit in these ways.

I was reading 'Herzog" the other day. I was looking for a line. The Saul Bellow book - and I don't know how Jewish "Herzog" was received as as a book. But I know that it was considered one of the flavors of American novel that you would read. And now I'm on a book tour where a majority of the questions are about being Jewish.

MOSLEY: You married your husband Claude, who's a fellow journalist, in 2006. And he made a commitment to you by becoming an Orthodox Jew, practicing Judaism, and he went through all of the processes needed to do that. You struggled with that a little. And now that I know about your childhood, can you talk to me a little bit about some of the things that you struggled the most with?

BRODESSER-AKNER: Yes. Yes. They would warn us in the Jewish day school I was sent to - I was sent to a yeshiva for high school. And they would warn us that you don't want to date someone who isn't Jewish, not just because we're trying to, you know, perpetuate Judaism and we don't encourage intermarriage. The idea was - and this is not what they said. This is what I inferred. If you date somebody who isn't Jewish, and he converts for you, then the demands of the conversion are that he become so religious that you, who were dating a gentile in the first place, would not necessarily want to be in that life.

But what happens? The heart wants what it wants, and I met Claude, and I fell in love with him. And he was do - he was willing to do whatever it took to make sure we were together. And my husband said to me, you're so close with your mother and your sisters, and I can't be the reason that there are arguments or rifts. And it was sort of the most beautiful, like, wedding gift someone could give. And so my husband started this conversion process, and by the time...

MOSLEY: And he went all in.

BRODESSER-AKNER: He was really, really into it. He left the mikvah, which is the last stage of your conversion. And I said, let's go get some Chinese food. You're Jewish now. That's what we do. And he said, OK, but can we go to the kosher place? And we - for seven or so years, we - I felt that he had done that for me, and now I would do this for him. And we were very, very happy until after the crash, it became so hard to make a living that I started making a case for, why are we restricting the amount of days we can work? Or why are we making sure that the food we have to buy is more expensive? I just became too resentful to keep doing it. And my husband, who was also a journalist and in the same position, understood. And he let the balances switch, and by then there were no questions about good intentions.

And we have settled on the Jewish life that I think - I have just bar mitzvahed my second son. And at his bar mitzvah, I told him, and I told the congregation - or I made a speech that said that I was hoping that by the time you were bar mitzvahed, I would be able to give you my line on Judaism. And I would be able to pass that down to you. But what I'm passing down to you instead is actually just my ambivalence. And it is a great Jewish tradition. It is yours now. You grapple with it, figure it out. Let me know what you decide. I will be there no matter what.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with the New York Times staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She's written a new novel called "Long Island Compromise," inspired by the actual abduction of a wealthy businessman and what follows after. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today I'm talking with Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She's written a new novel called "Long Island Compromise." And it's a story that's set in the 1980s, and it centers on a wealthy businessman who is kidnapped from his driveway in an affluent neighborhood on Long Island, brutalized and held for ransom. He returns home to his wife and kids, and they all appear to move on with their lives until 40 years later, when it's apparent that no one has really gotten over it. Taffy Brodesser-Akner adapted her previous novel, "Fleishman Is In Trouble," into a limited FX series on Hulu.

Taffy, we talked about how you went to film school. But after film school, you didn't get a screenwriting job, so you went to work for a soap opera magazine. And then you moved onto freelance writing, and then blogging and teaching and then doing celebrity profiles, people like Taylor Swift and Gwyneth Paltrow. And there's this thing that you said that I'm really fascinated by, I want to know more about. You've said that you dread these kinds of interviews, that you were never really excited about them. How come?

BRODESSER-AKNER: Because I love writing, and this was how I was allowed to do it. My point of view after film school, all the way through freelancing, soap opera magazine, was my eye was on this ball that was, as long as you get to write. And the writing is what I love to do the most. The interviews feel so fraught, and I feel so much dread right before them. They are these sort of scary moments where you don't know if you are going to - what you're going to encounter. All you know is that the person you're about to interview is so famous that the only thing they're bringing to the interview is whatever they think about journalists. And I don't know if you've heard, Tonya, it's not great what they're thinking about journalists out there lately.


MOSLEY: Oh, I know.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Wait, do you have dread of interviews? I'm really curious about this because, like, you do the interview show. Do you love the interview, or do you sort of just love the end result? Because for me, it was the end result and writing. But do you sort of, like, feel like a little bit of a ugh right before you start your interview?

MOSLEY: Totally. Yeah. There's dread every single time. And I'll be honest, what I love the most is the stuff beforehand. I love learning all about you before meeting you.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Right, right. And then you also have to figure out, like, how am I going to ask these questions? And it's kind of terrible.

MOSLEY: Right. You're looking for truth. So you're going into these environments to interview celebrities, and they have an image that they want to present. And the purpose of interacting with you is for that purpose, so it can get out there. So how do you actually break that and get people to want to talk to you, especially when their primary goal in most cases is to have you write about them in the way that they want to be written about.

BRODESSER-AKNER: I don't. I lean into what they want me to write about. I want to know the gripe they have with how they are perceived and what they would like to know about - what they would like the audience to know that the audience couldn't possibly know because in every other interview, the interviewer was asking too many questions. This is an advantage you could have when you're doing a print interview, right? Like, you showed up to this. You know everything. I know everything when I show up. But I don't ask as many questions as you do. I let the person talk. And I try to signal to the person that I will listen, and I will allow them to get a point of view across. And then I'll ask myself quietly, I wonder why he or she is saying this? It's a luxury I have.

MOSLEY: You're observing.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Yeah, I'm observing. I'm observing not just the person but what the person is doing in the interview, because I don't actually think that I could have a very honest interaction with those people. And the other advantage I have that you perhaps don't have being in this setup is that I only write about what happened and what I saw. I don't have to write about what I asked or how I was. I don't show up in the interview, except as a sort of proxy for the reader in terms of observation.

MOSLEY: Right. But also, we learn how you feel. I want to give people...


MOSLEY: ...A slice of what I mean. OK. So this one that I'm going to read, an excerpt from a profile that you did on former CNN news anchor, commentator Don Lemon for GQ in 2015.

BRODESSER-AKNER: (Laughter) I'm sure Don will appreciate that.

MOSLEY: No. So, you write - you start off (reading) - so maybe he's not Walter Cronkite. Maybe he's done some famously awkward interviews, gotten his facts wrong, and made CNN the butt of more than a few jokes. But that won't stop Don Lemon, because here's the thing - he can fill hours of nothing with a crisp news-like something. No matter what he says, no matter how badly he screws up, he never blinks. That's his gift. He just keeps on going.

MOSLEY: And then you later go on to say, (reading) he picked up a Murrow Award for coverage of the DC Sniper in 2002. Yes, Don Lemon has an Edward R. Murrow a ward. So, of course, a lot has come out about Don Lemon since then.


MOSLEY: He's been let go of CNN because of some of his questionable remarks. So some of what you observed is definitely on point. But what you wrote does sound kind of mean or does it sound kind of mean to you when I read it back to you?

BRODESSER-AKNER: Well, I'll answer that by saying that there's a character in my book named Beamer, who in Hebrew school, he asks, what is hell like? What is the afterlife like? And the teacher tells Beamer, you just have to watch your entire life over again. And if you were good, you will feel good. And if you are bad, you will feel bad. And this haunts Beamer through all of his days. I feel a little like that that, like, being read my past work is, like, sort of the meanest thing anyone's done to me in a while.

MOSLEY: I'm sorry, Taffy.

BRODESSER-AKNER: I still respect you. I still like you very much, Tonya. I'll say this - that that - if you read the entirety of that story, I'm actually speaking from his point of view.

This was during a time where Don Lemon was the butt of every joke, and I'm saying, like, if you go on to read it, this story flips at the end to show that the theater of the piece was actually that this is what you think of Don Lemon. Actually, he's really smart. Actually, he has an Edward R. Murrow award, which I don't have. I don't even know if I - if there's any story I wrote that anyone would put up for something like that.

And the conclusion I came to was that there was some sort of unspeakable homophobia and racism that was informing the way people were talking about Don Lemon, but they couldn't say it directly. So they just called him dumb. But he was not dumb. In fact, that story begins with me horrified by the way he pronounces sorbet. He says sorbet...

MOSLEY: Sorbet.

BRODESSER-AKNER: ...Or something. And then I found out later in fact-checking, that sorbet is a regionalism and a perfectly valid way of pronouncing it. So I think that the difference between the sort of theater of the story I write and, say, a radio interview is that I, as perhaps your listeners have inferred so far, I am not afraid of looking dumb. I am not afraid of asking stupid questions. I am not afraid of being the butt of the joke myself in the name of writing a good piece.

MOSLEY: Taffy Brodesser-Akner, thank you so much for this conversation.

BRODESSER-AKNER: Tonya, thank you.

MOSLEY: Taffy Brodesser-Akner is the author of the new novel "Long Island Compromise" - a businessman who was kidnapped from his driveway and returned for a ransom a week later. In addition to Taffy's fictionalized version in her new novel, she's also written a story on the real life Teich, which was in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - can you call a sexual relationship between a 47-year-old teacher and a 17-year-old student consensual? Jill Ciment grapples with this in her new memoir, "Consent," and she joins us to talk about it.


MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi, and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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