My Life and Times in American Publishing

The problem was the pink sweater. It was pretty, and it was awfully expensive. I’d bought it shopping with my mother. The HR lady at Emperor Books, whom I’d come to see about an editorial internship, saw the sweater and sent me straight to Floe, which, it turned out, was the chick lit department. The editor across the desk—Kristy, let’s call her—asked me what I liked to read. This was a question I should have been, but was not, prepared to answer. “Susan Sontag?” I said.

Lucky guess. “Susan! Did you know that she’s on the cover of the Times Book Review this week?” Kristy told me she liked that I was quiet. She even said she liked my sweater. Two months later, after I’d finished my semester, we were splitting a bowl of edamame, which, she said, would never happen again, not while there were agents to expense.

Kristy taught me how to answer the phone by saying her name, which I quickly turned into an incoherent song. (Later, her boyfriend would call just to make me say it, then laugh and insist he was various conservative pundits.) She showed me how to read manuscripts she didn’t want from agents—by shuffling the pages until they looked like they’d been read—and how to respond to the unsolicited—”Sorry to say that Trouble in Venice just didn’t speak to me the way I’d hoped it would.” Kristy told me I was lucky I came from California because, when she’d first moved to New York from Indiana, she’d been even more clueless. She hadn’t even owned an air conditioner. But now, she said, she’d become almost as ruthless as the publishing ladies she would soon overtake. When her door was closed, she was negotiating with Disney to double her salary. When her door was open, she was inviting editors to a club at her house called “Books in the ‘Burg.” On Fridays, she sent me to fetch her cupcakes, in the spirit that it was I who most wanted her to eat them.

There were four of us interns at Floe, lined up in adjoining cubicles like particles trapped in a salad fork, with our bosses’ doors directly behind us. Clare, the marketing intern, drank her coffee black, a habit designed to counteract her tiny stature and penchant for tasteful ruffles. She usually left 40 minutes early for what was either the late shift at J. Crew or, as she claimed, yet another interview at the Wall Street Journal. A seersucker jacket hung over the back of her chair, promising her return, while the publicity intern—whose name I can’t remember, whose responsibilities remained a mystery wrapped in a blank expression—faithfully kept her computer from going to sleep.

At the far end of the line, beyond Clare and the publicity intern, sat the other editorial intern. Because of the distance between us, I imagined her to be my secret ally. Over Clare’s and publicity’s heads we pantomimed bulimia, boredom, suicide. Once, gesturing wildly, I asked if she’d like to get lunch, just the two of us. But we were complicated people, the editorial interns, I felt, not much for talking. Most communication was shared by all four of us and focused, by Clare and necessity, on our appearances. It was important, Clare said, whenever any of our bosses’ doors opened, to keep our backs very straight.

Here are some places I thought I’d prefer to work: the art department, where they wore jeans and spent a lot of time messing around with the paper cutter, and even marketing, maybe—Clare once spent a whole day shredding plush bunny rabbits with a letter opener for strategic placement on David Letterman’s desk. But the bathroom, that was my favorite. While the rest of the office was cooled to Arctic levels (compelling us to get up every hour and stir sugar-free hot chocolate into waxy little cups), the bathroom, perhaps because of its tiles, was insulated to a pleasing October. And there I could sit, in a space not much smaller than my cubicle, and continue to stare at blank surfaces, completely unobserved.

But really, it was unfair to complain. With no work experience besides the school paper and smoothies, I was being paid minimum wage by an important publisher to sit very still and, occasionally, walk across the floor. This was the dawn of Friendster, and when Kristy’s door was closed enough that she couldn’t see into my cubicle, I convinced my neighbors to join the competition for the savviest profile. We liked Nabokov, Didion, The Sun Also Rises. The publicity intern was into that book about the fun, alcoholic Southern women. I listed Elliott Smith, who wasn’t yet dead, and this, my friends explained, was maybe part of my problem.

We had soup at Soho Soup, we had bagels at Dizzy’s Bagels. We bought fake IDs on Carmine Street and spent one night sitting in the lobby of an Avenue B apartment building, waiting for the publicity intern to come back, which never happened. To set myself apart, I occasionally walked up and down Prince Street alone during lunch break, eating warm sesame noodles. I read all of Carole Maso’s books, covering them with unsolicited manuscripts when Kristy’s door was open, like pornography, which I was pretty sure they were. I bought a Salon membership, because I didn’t know you could read it for free. One day, the whole intern program received an email, summoning us to a conference room. The room was full of Emperor tote bags and frisbees. “All these are for you,” someone said.

Then Kristy told me to find the new Jesus. Those weren’t the exact words she used. Her superior (a sturdy, headbanded woman named Kate) had commissioned Kristy to find a new spiritual leader. The market was ripe for it, Kristy explained. All we had to do was find him. I would know him when I saw him, because he was a clean-cut, non-white, Christian male. He had a manifesto already on the market (so Emperor could easily buy the rights) and a sizable cult or congregation (so he’d be good on television). I spent the next three weeks printing out full-page headshots of smiling Southeast Asian men and hiding them in an unmarked folder. None of them were him, Kristy said when I showed her. She’d been listening to a lot of AM radio. We never found him. That was July.

Once in a while, I’d get sent up the central, circular staircase to the third floor, where Rockhopper and Emperor Classics had their offices. The point was to deliver a contract or paperback to one of these more reputable imprints. But like a shelter cat doing flips in its cage, I thought that if I looked desperate or literate enough, and was wearing the right skirt, someone would take me in. As I lingered—wandering vaguely between the cubicles, leaning against copy machines, hallucinating the sound of Kristy’s phone—I felt more and more that the third floor was where I belonged. The walls were decorated with tasteful illustrations for Sula, not the posters of fetishized girl-feet that hung behind my desk. The writers, if they came, might be foreign dissidents, not the guy from The Bachelor. And the interns, their loafers were hideous, but there was something—some glimmer in their eyes, the dim smile of the person who must be tapped on the shoulder not once but five times—that made me believe these confused young women, with their loafers, were my true sisters, and my vanity had kept us apart. I cursed the pink sweater.

Then it was over. We had lunch the last day in the cafeteria, which we’d only recently found while cruising up and down the elevators. We invited a girl who appeared to be moving into my cubicle. It turned out she wasn’t an intern. She was going to be an editorial assistant. Unlike us, she’d graduated from college and even paid for the Columbia publishing course. Her job was to do what two of us combined had done over the course of the summer. Only for the assistant it wasn’t vacation. We told her about Jesus and the bunnies. We recommended Dizzy’s Bagels. Her hair was so straight, even in August. I wanted to touch it, or something. “Do you think you’ll go into publishing?” she asked. “Hell no,” the publicity intern said. I’m still Friendsters with these people.

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