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Dispatches From The New Yorker Festival

Tales Out of School 2: A New Yorker Night with the Moth
Susan Orlean, David Grann, Jane Mayer, Jeffrey Toobin and Calvin Trillin. Hosted by Andy Borowitz

The Moth is an organization that has brought back the art of storytelling. Their events in New York City attract professionals and novices alike as the entrants tell stories without notes or outlines. New Yorker staff writers took the audience along with them on the adventures and pratfalls of working for the famed magazine. Andy Borowitz, who writes many a Shouts and Murmurs column, was a hilarious MC for the evening. “You all probably subscribe to The New Yorker,” he said, “But maybe you don’t read it, you let them pile up. After all, reading it is kind of pretentious, don’t you think? I worked the New York Post festival, they didn’t get any of my jokes. At least here you all speak French. You have to, just to understand anything by Adam Gopnik. We’re at Le Poisson Rouge, which as you all know, means ‘Poison Makeup.'”

Susan Orlean discussed the insecurities she felt as she first started at the magazine. With an editor, Chip McGrath, who prized vagueness and was short on words, she had little to no direction and felt she couldn’t really ask around, either. “It would be like going on a date with George Clooney and, as you sit down to dinner, asking him whether he’s wearing protection.” Asking how long a piece should be or when it was due yielded answers like, “How long does the piece want to be? When will the piece be done?” She trudged along, gamely letting the manager of a Benetton call the office to check her credentials and working for months on a piece without having received a single paycheck. When money had run so tight that she had to ask, finally, what she was getting paid, Chip’s answer didn’t disappoint: “It will be sufficient.”

David Grann brought us through the harrowing adventure of trying to catch the world’s largest squid. It didn’t help that he’d oversold the story and their chances of succeeding, but when he arrived in New Zealand to find how ill-equipped they were to handle the task, he seriously thought his career might be over. “Reporters are passive creatures by nature,” he said, but he was one of three crewmen on the boat and spent several nights out on rough seas setting traps and bringing them back in again, to no avail. On one of their last evenings, they thought they’d caught a baby giant squid by the shape of it’s head and size of its eyes, but it fell through their fingers as they tried to bring it onboard. Looking at the sadness in the captain’s face, Grann realized that sometimes it is the failures in life that are most profound.

Borowitz had his own harrowing story. He was once performing on the Queen Mary II. He ordered calamari, but they were out. “The sea is a cruel mistress,” he said, solemnly.

Jeffery Toobin brought us with him on his first big break. A story assignment from Tina Brown to cover the OJ case. Toobin had scant leads to follow but had found a case file from the detective on the case who had sued the police department for the damages he’d suffered as a result of having to work with black people. Toobin, then snuck into the office of Robert Shapiro, OJ’s lead defense attorney, and happened to catch Shapiro at his desk. They talked briefly about the racist detective and Shapiro says, “I think that guy is so racist, he planted the glove!” Toobin had his story which made both the news and his career. “Tina, in her understated manner, actually hired a plane to fly around the Hampons with a message flying off the back that read, ‘Big OJ Scoop.'”

Jane Mayer had us sitting in the car with her as she tried to ambush Mark Swanner, CIA employee who she believes had killed a prisoner at Abu Ghraib. “I’m not sure what Bob Woodword wears, but ambushing provides a fashion dilemma. Do I wear pearls? Does this outfit make me look liberal?” she wondered. When the CIA found out she was writing the story, they told her that if she published his name, he’d be killed. What Mayer seeks to accomplish is to document the American response to being attacked, to keep track of whether we can, “deal with inhumanity while being humane.” They published Swanner’s name, substantially raising the profile of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Calvin Trillin brought us, uproariously, on his few early battles with long-time editor William Shawn, for whom he had enormous respect, over language. Trillin isn’t particularly into profanity, as his father had been a proponent of using proper language: “When I was a little boy, I thought ‘for crying out loud’ was the sort of oath that grownups used for particularly dire circumstances.” Shawn’s desired changes often verged on the ridiculous. John Cheever had to edit the sentence, “You’ve just lost a fuck,” to “Shut up Melissa, shut up,” before it would run in The New Yorker. When and article mentioned cats mounting each other Shawn requested a euphemism for mount, something like, “making a sexual advance toward.” “But it’s a cat. We’re talking about a cat here,” said Trillin. Needless to say, “mount” remained. The first time the magazine published a photo of bare breasts a reader wrote to Trillin to complain. Trillin responded, “They were small breasts, in keeping with the understated nature of the magazine.” While writing his U.S. Journal series, he interviewed  Lester Maddox, who spoke the phrase, “ram it.” Trillin protested that Shawn was asking Trillin to stop listening when other reporters are still listening, which lead to a showdown over which Trillin was afraid he’d lose his job. “I know what you analytically inclined New Yorkers are thinking: I really did have a burning ambition to get dirty words in The New Yorker, because I was acting out against my father who I deeply resented for sleeping with my mother. In all honesty, when I’m in my own voice, as opposed to quoting somebody, I’ve never use offensive language in the magazine. I’ve always known that my father and Mr. Shawn would disapprove.”

>>>NEXT: “That’s What She Said”: A Conversation with Steve Carrell

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