During her tenure at The New York Times Magazine (and before that, GQ), the writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner has interviewed Gwyneth Paltrow, Tonya Harding, Kris Jenner, Jimmy Buffett, Marie Kondo, Tom Hiddleston and Jonathan Franzen. She’s done bombshell investigations, most recently on a #MeToo scandal at the company that owns Kay Jewelers, and reports on the fringe worlds of sugar babies and nouveau Christians. Earlier this summer, she released her first novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, a thick, smart, summery read about divorce, marriage and what it means to be a woman operating in a world built by men.
Originally, Taffy and I had planned to meet at Dorrian’s Red Hand, an Upper East Side bar that appears in Fleishman. In the scene, Toby Fleishman, a middle-aged hepatologist in the throes of divorce, meets a woman with “mega-cleavage” and a wrap dress from a dating app for a drink. He orders Scotch and she a Martini (with six olives), which she sips through a straw while analyzing the end of her own marriage, the result of her ex’s obsession with threesomes. Prior to their meetup, the woman has already sent Toby a crotch shot, which he finds equally beguiling and bizarre. This is the sort of scene Taffy is brilliant at drawing up—a tableau of horny, gloomy New Yorkers rubbing up against one another in semi-salacious, yet ultimately melancholy stories.
But Dorrian’s, which Toby accurately deems “a bro bar,” is closed for a private event on this humid July evening. So, instead, in the pouring rain I run across the avenue to Brandy’s Piano Bar, a very air-conditioned, old-school dive with nightly live singing (which, coincidentally, appears in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City). When Taffy arrives, shaking the rain off her umbrella, she’s buoyant—a palpable, energetic presence that’s difficult to square with the typical image of a lurking or inconspicuous reporter.
“What do you recommend?” she asks the bartender. “We’re not that kind of bar,” he says apologetically. She requests prosecco, but acquiesces to a mini bottle of Korbel. “I’m a monumental basic,” says Taffy, without flinching. “I walk by a Gap and I feel a yearning.” She explains that this is why she is perfect for her job, that her curiosities are representative of the average American’s. She knows what we want to ask Robert Pattinson and Bradley Cooper and Nicki Minaj, and bless her, she asks it.
In a recent interview she gave, Taffy says primes her subjects by telling them that a profile is not for them. That they are the only person the story is not for. She recognizes this about herself right now—that she is peering over from the other side of the table, the subject of her own story, her superpower of observation suddenly of little use. She knows this story is not for her.
“I feel renewed sympathy for anyone I’ve ever interviewed,” she says. “Everything I say is on the record. Is it true? Is this the story of myself, or is this just something I said?” As one of this generation’s most prolific profilers and culture journalists (she published over 90,000 words last year, for the paper of record), Taffy understands that anyone she’s ever interviewed is just saying words, just a string of sentences that, at that moment, reflects a very small sliver of a version of a story that may or may not be true.
At this moment though, she seems willing to share quite a lot. Maybe it’s because she’s done this before, because she understands what it’s like to stumble through a question that is reaching for something far below the surface, searching for a better angle, a clearer light—however awkward—in which to see her subject. Or maybe it’s because she’s written a number of confessional essays about her obsessive-compulsive disorder, her experience growing up in a strict Orthodox Jewish home, her time abroad in Israel, her own parents’ divorce and her fears about the institution of marriage. We talk about what she and her husband disagree upon (whether their kids should be allowed to roam without supervision), what their kids think about her taste in music (when she plays The Beatles or Paul Simon, “they say, ‘you’re making us listen to music from the 1900s’”), which authors she admires too much to ever profile (Philip Roth, were he still alive; John Irving) and the social cost of not letting your children play Fortnite (“I did worry that it cost them, that it cost me among the other mothers who may feel judged that my kids weren’t allowed to play”).
By her second Korbel mini, we’ve created an inside joke, calling the California sparkling wine “Champagne-ish.” Taffy is also good at this—creating intimacy, sparking banter. Because this is how you make a whole job out of listening to people: You attempt to draw people out, detect what they aren’t saying, pick up all the puzzle pieces the public already knows and stitch them together with a few details gleaned from a smattering of moments spent together over drinks. Ironically, it’s the exact thing I’m attempting to do now. And from what I can see, Taffy may consider herself basic, but she’s anything but. Anyone this sharp, this ready to interrogate any given topic—The Algorithm, the notion of “the record,” our genetic predisposition toward certain flavors—with such unabashed conviction defies the very definition of basic. And nobody basic could eat and drink with some of the world’s most famous people with such a steady head and such equal measures of optimism, skepticism and genuine curiosity.
She’s had beers with Robert Pattinson at a golf course, Nathan’s hot dogs with Christian Slater at Coney Island and “Triple Axels” with Tonya Harding, a cocktail invented especially for the former Olympian at a Polynesian restaurant in Battle Ground, Wash. And then there were the Screwdrivers with Billy Bob Thornton on his band’s tour bus, as they traveled through Alabama. “You’re on a tour bus, you’ve got vodka and orange juice. It may have been 9 a.m. I had two.” (She doesn’t really like drinking, but when with subjects she relents with a two-drink max, which she says she’s broken only once, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s house manager kept refilling her wine glass during the interview.) Late one night, she and Thornton decided to tell the truth about everything. “One of the truths was jazz music is bad and people who like it are lying,” she says. It’s the perfect Taffy-ism—self-effacing, self-aware, anti-elitist. But it’s also about telling a story: “I’m a circular person. I like a beginning, middle and end.” And the other truth? “Wine is bad and everyone’s faking it.”