By Marisa Dunn
To say Rebecca Traister is busy would be an understatement. She’s a writer-at-large for New York magazine and its website, The Cut and a contributing editor at Elle. Oh, and she recently published her second book, All The Single Ladies, which is about the growing number of single women in the U.S and what the future holds for them (hint: a lot). Read on to see how Rebecca does it all.
How did you get your start in the magazine industry?
It was kind of accidental; I didn’t go to journalism school. When I got out of college I moved to New York. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I thought I might want to work in film production. I wound up getting a job as an assistant to an actor. I did that for about a year. Then, in 1998, I got a job as an assistant to an editor at a magazine. I was a secretary: I got coffee, made calls and did those sorts of things. But while I was there, I met a lot of journalists, editors, and writers. I became friendly with them. They felt like I could have a career in journalism. At some point, one of my editors suggested I apply for a job as a fact checker at the New York Observer, which is a weekly newspaper. I did, and I became the paper’s fact checker and a junior reporter for three or four years. I learned the mechanics of journalism: how to make calls, gather facts, interview and meet deadlines. After that, I was hired by Salon, an online magazine, as a writer for women’s issues. At that point, it was called the “Life” section because there was not a thriving feminine online community. But I began to write things from a feminist perspective, and my editors encouraged me to continue. I developed a feminist beat. I ended up at Salon for 10 years. I didn’t originally write about politics, but while I was there a woman ran for president. I covered her race, and then I wrote my first book about Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin. Then I received a contract to write my second book, All The Single Ladies, and I took a job at The New Republic. Now I write for New York magazine.
You’re a writer-at-large for New York and its website, The Cut, as well as a contributing editor to Elle. What do those titles mean?
I’ve actually never been an editor, I’m just an honorific editor at Elle. That just happens to be how they categorize contributing writers. Writer-at-large is a title my bosses and I agreed upon at NY mag. It’s no different than a senior or opinion writer.
How did it feel to switch from magazine to book writing?
It felt very different because it’s a much longer process. It’s like writing the longest magazine feature of your life. I worked on my most recent book for four or five years, and my first book for a year and a half. You’re telling one story and you need to figure out exactly how you want to paint it. You need to decide what materials to use and which to cut. It’s an epically larger process than magazine writing. It’s satisfying in different ways and maddening in different ways. The hardest thing from a daily work perspective is that you’re never done. You never have that feeling of being filed and published and being able to take a break. For five years, you can never do enough work on any given day.
The women you spoke with in All The Single Ladies reveal a lot of intimate information to you. What’s your advice for Ed2010’ers trying to polish their interview skills?
I’m actually not a particularly gifted interviewer. I would be a terrible investigative reporter. I’m always letting people off the hook. Everyone has different techniques based on their own personality and impulses. My natural impulse is to be completely transparent with everyone, to a fault. I tell them what I’m doing and what they’re agreeing to. It helps them feel secure about what the context of the interview is going to be. I try to give them a lot of flexibility. When interviewing for All The Single Ladies, I didn’t offer anonymity, but I did offer the ability to go by a first name or to use a middle name. Interestingly, when you give people so many options, they often agree to be more open.
In All The Single Ladies you discuss how your twenties were a formative period in your life. Why do you think that is?
Your twenties are so formative because they’re the beginning of your adulthood. It’s the time when you’re exploring and becoming independent. You’ve left whatever family you that raised you. It’s also the period during which work opportunities start to shape the decisions you make. It’s the age when many women make decisions about having families. You go through the experience of aging, and you do it alongside your friends. You choose the people you surround yourself with. For women, it’s increasingly become a time when you can exert some measure of control over what you want to become.
What advice do you have for Ed2010’ers in that stage of their lives?
I’m very bad at giving advice to big groups of people. But I would say: remember that this is real life. That doesn’t mean they have to immediately start retirement accounts, but you should know you’re not in a practice round for adulthood. You’re not still a kid. You can live in all kinds of ways, but don’t treat this as a dress rehearsal for life. You’re living your life. This is your life. It’s valid and real and full of good and bad. You are a person in the world. Regard yourself that way. Respect yourself.
What do you think the role of women’s magazines is in informing this new generation of single women of all the opportunities available to them?
It’s complicated. There is an increasing variety of stories in women’s magazines about politics, abortion, money, work and education. It’s great. Many magazines are reflecting this nuanced, complicated trend. At the same time, like so much of pop culture and the media, many magazines are also funded by advertisers who send messages that objectify and diminish women. It’s a big problem.
In the past, single women have often gotten a bad rap (think: spinsters, cat ladies). But recently, in movies such as “How To Be Single,” and in your book, single women have gotten a dose of positive publicity. Could this be the start of a new trend?
I think the impressions we have of single women in the media are improving rapidly. We’re getting a more diverse look at single women and a better reflection of how complicated single life can be. Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling, “Broad City” and “Girls” are doing a great job of this. Our perceptions are getting closer to reality.
What’s your next career move?
I’m not sure. I write about women and politics, so right now my job is covering the election. I’ll have to see what happens in the political realm.
Do you have a favorite article you’ve written?
I’m not sure it’s a favorite, but it’s one I return to again and again. It’s about a friendship with my friend Sara. I wrote it in first-person in 2004 when she moved away to Boston, and I worked at Salon.
Do you have something you can’t work or live without?
I’m not a gadget person- I still use my old Radio Shack recorder for interviews. I take it everywhere.
Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat?
Twitter and Instgram. I use Twitter all the time.