A Chat With Jia Tolentino, Woman Famous for Writing a Story About a Man Who Had Sex With a Dolphin

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A Chat With Jia Tolentino, Woman Famous for Writing a Story About a Man Who Had Sex With a Dolphin
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Jia Tolentino, a staff writer at the New Yorker, is on the precipice of releasing her first book, Trick Mirror, a collection of acutely observed essays that is befittingly receiving a compendium of breathless reviews, many of which designate her as the Joan Didion of our time. These accolades are well deserved, of course, but those of us who know Jia through this website, also know her singular commitment to stupidity: take her investigation into the granular details of human-dolphin boning, or this insightful essay told from the first-person perspective of an abandoned subway condom.

To Jezebel, Jia Tolentino is our friend and, for some of us, our former boss; as Deputy Editor at this website from 2014-2016, she was a torrential force who delivered some of the best and clearest edits we’ve ever had, while regularly turning around stunning longform pieces in something like three days.

The “joke” about Jia among those who know her is that she is good at virtually everything she wants to be good at, and the most fortunate among us know that she is as thoughtful, generous, and exceptional a friend as she is a writer and thinker. To celebrate the release of Trick Mirror, which really is as fuckin great as everyone attests, I called her on the phone to discuss her book, Twitter, Jezebel and, of course, our favorite activity, raves. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: Hi Jia. Are you in a car?

JIA TOLENTINO: I actually was upstate. I’ve been reporting a piece for New Yorker and have not been able to get a lot of work done lately and was like I gotta fuckin’ get out of here. I drove upstate and just worked for the last three days straight. We had all these summer storms, all these torrential sunshowers, and it did the trick.

That sounds incredible. Are you doing a ton of book press right now?

Yeah, I’m doing a lot of press… it’s incredibly lucky, you know, I think the first time that I ever thought about book writing, or understood book writing as a thing that people did, I was in a fiction MFA program in Michigan. When you’re a first time novelist, it’s really hard to trust that anyone will read your work. And I think I understood correctly that that’s how it is when you publish a book. It’s incredible to be like oh, people want to talk to you about this book, you don’t have to worry that no one’s going to read it. You know at the same time, right, it’s like talking about yourself a lot. It makes me like, hate myself!

Well, the reason I bring this up is because we have been taking note every time someone compares you to Joan Didion, which is often.

Oh my god, fuck you guys! Send me all the shit-talking to like, calm me down. Yeah that stuff, I will not entertain it in my own brain, you know? It’s incredibly flattering but like, yeah, it’s so funny and like how far have we fallen?

But also you’re out here tweeting about—well, you wrote the thing about molly, but—

Yeah, like being high! [Laughs]

I’ve always wanted to ask you about your tweets, is David Remnick [editor-in-chief of the New Yorker] just like, yeah, cool dude!

I mean, probably not. [Laughs] In my acknowledgements, a thing I thank Remnick for is not firing me for tweeting about my bong. So, I kind of feel very strongly about this. I think there are a lot of ways to be a worse tweeter… I’m definitely not disciplined or thoughtful in my tweeting, but I definitely don’t tweet that much. And one thing after stopping working at Jezebel—I didn’t have to monitor Twitter to assign out news all the time, so I looked at it a lot less, which was great. I started tweeting a lot less I think, and it doesn’t necessarily seem like it because when I’m tweeting, it’s like 160 characters about my bong.

But I feel very strongly that the only way for these networks to be bearable is for people to be, like, as minimally bullshitty as possible, you know? For people to not perform this idea of “journalist”—I think we can see how that fucks up election coverage in general. I think the only way for these networks to be bearable is if people can be themselves on them—which isn’t to say they shouldn’t be held accountable for being themselves, but I think that my writing is good enough to justify me hitting the bong every now and then. [Laughs] You know what I mean?

The only way for these networks to be bearable is for people to be, like as minimally bullshitty as possibLE

As of yet I’ve been totally unwilling to make the conscious calculation of being like, here is how you should present yourself online as to be more employable. You should be allowed to do this sort of thoughtlessly and just live in the online world the way that you would want to live in the real one, and just be chill, allow yourself to be yourself, and guard it within reason. There was one time that [Remnick] came up to me in the office awhile ago, like after people were talking about the Times’s is social media guidelines for freelancers. I was in the office randomly and he came up to me like, “Jia, do you think we should have social media guidelines?” and I was like, ‘Uhhhh, why are you asking me that question?” [Laughs] So as of yet, [the New Yorker’s] social media policy is not formal, it’s just like, don’t be stupid and understand that you’ll have to answer for your mistakes. I feel like I should be able to be unprofessional and if I’m too unprofessional, then let me know and I’ll face the consequences on my own.

Right. A ‘We’re all adults here’ approach.

Yeah, I think that’s such an appropriate social media policy—like, you’re on your own, do whatever you want, but if you fuck up, you fuck up. I truly feel like the only way for social media to be sustainable—I don’t even want it to be sustainable, I want it to die—but… maybe it’s more personal thing… for me to be able to stay sane while using it is to not have to present myself in any certain way.

Right, I always think about the places I probably will never work because at some point in my life I have tweeted, like, Fuck this politician. But at the same time, what is the point, if I have an opinion about an elected official who is causing harm to their constituents, then I’m unemployable? It’s like… what’s the point of even being a person.

No, I know. I mean, like I write about in the book, I’m sure I’m doing a lot of subconscious controlling of how I come off to other people. That, I think, is sort of inevitable and fine, but the idea of consciously having to change the way you present yourself for your employer beyond the common-sense thing of like, you’re not fuckin’ tweeting nudes, you know what I mean? [Laughs] I can’t imagine being able to do that well.

Does Gizmodo have a social media policy?

Oh god. No! Not as of now. I think everyone would be fired.

One thing that I valued the most about working at Jezebel was that you can understand Internet dynamics so well; it’s almost like you’re an oceanographer and you’re watching these detailed charts. You can just watch what drives traffic and how it goes and how long people are reading. But now I don’t know traffic, I don’t know anything… but I do know that my bong Twitter must be driving a lot of traffic to the website. And so it’s like, no one’s going to think my twitter is fun if it’s if it’s like me trying to be like, you know, Trump’s newest tweet belies the latest to continue the policy of division, you know? [Laughs] I think Jezebel just gave me a really good education in internet dynamics. It teaches you what the edge is, and how to never go over it. Or, not yet; I can’t wait to be cancelled in five years.

I don’t know anything… but I do know that my bong Twitter must be driving a lot of traffic to the website.

But also, imagine writing with the freedom of like, Walden. Writing without the feeling of knowing that you’re being watched as you figure out the process.

Well, that’s kind of what the book felt like. That’s why I wanted to write it. I think the self-consciousness of audience, as much as I’ve tried to shake it off, the Internet really formalizes it and makes it inevitable. And I was like, yeah, I want to wall this off for a while. Because I had the experience of writing in private just for myself for like four years with the novel that I wrote and I loved that and it felt really special, to have a secret. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that book promotion is throwing me off a little bit, because I didn’t think past finishing the book.

To me it feels weird that it’s happening to you now—well, obviously, you just put a book out—but maybe it’s just because I know you and to me you feel like such an outsized figure in our friends’ lives and in your work at Jezebel and the New Yorker, I’m just like oh NOW you are into Jia? It’s almost like oh, you just heard about this band?

[Laughs] I love you, thank you. I know what you mean. I know all of your writing so meticulously, paragraph to paragraph, because we read each other’s work and drafts for so long. And that is everything that I miss about not editing anymore—the intimate knowledge I had of what all these people that I really loved were thinking about, you know? I miss that in general, not just about the Jezebel staff, but in people that I would edit regularly. I miss getting to know them in that way.

But the one thing that’s kind of related to that that I found funny: It’s not that I didn’t feel taken seriously at Jezebel. But you know, you just get that thing where people are always like blah blah blah Jezebel, like, I can’t believe I’m linking to Jezebel, but… and then that all went away at the New Yorker. Even though sometimes I will get on Twitter like, 19-year-old leftists being like, I can’t believe I’m linking to centrist, baby boomer New Yorker, and I’m like, come on, y’all. But one thing that did make me mad was that I got trolled so much less; people would respect a piece more, a piece that I would have written at Jezebel that may be a little bit more formal at the New Yorker, but really the same piece, the same ideas, the same argument. I see this over and over in pieces I write about sexual assault and abortion, and even other things. I’m not saying that Jezebel and the New Yorker are exactly the same, right?

People would respect a piece more, a piece that I would have written at Jezebel, but really the same piece, the same ideas, the same argument.

But once I was out of the “women’s media” corner, [my] writing about “women’s stuff” would just land differently. And that makes me mad. One thing that’s been nice about being at the New Yorker is that I’ve been able to write with any of my political presets just foregrounded and out in the open, and being like, It’s not like this is a feminist take, this is just one of our writers doing a thing. And that, I feel grateful for. But I was also like, Oh, you think I’m too fancy to troll now, you fuckin pieces of shit? [Laughs]




[Laughs] I mean, I really do get a lot less truly abusive stuff in my email now, and that makes me so mad for my past self and what all of our writers had to go through and still do, I’m sure. I think about that a lot.

We sure do! This is sort of related, but I’m really glad you finally wrote the “Cult of the Difficult Woman” piece in your book. It’s something we’d been talking about even before you went to the New Yorker, for like three years.

One thing that I think is tricky in general, and with the “Difficult Women” essay, is this idea that we’ve done such a good job of protecting women from unfair criticism that we now shield them from fair criticism. And that became such a refrain while I was at Jezebel, like every time someone would report a piece about some shitty girl boss, people would be like “Stop tearing them down” and I’d be like What the fuck!

The tricky thing, I think, is that women’s cultural freedom has been expanding at the same time as it has been legislatively contracting in so many ways. One of the things that I kept thinking about at Jezebel—and one of the things that I’m really conscious of being 30—is like, I’m so cognizant of how much more freedom I’ve had from the beginning, throughout all of my 20s, than people who were 10 years older than me had.

Yes, hello!

It was a different media landscape that I landed in, and it has made a difference. Culture is changing so quickly that there are new sort of pockets of freedom and new little opportunities available to us every day, even as some of them are disappearing. And I feel like one of the jobs of feminism is to find those pockets of freedom and make as good a use of them as you can. But it’s hard, because who gets to say what those pockets of freedom even are? We ran into this so many times at Jezebel—like, you know, are we free to make fun of someone for dyeing their pubes, or are we not? I thought it was reasonable, a lot of people didn’t, and I get how that’s up in the air.

Well, it’s also interesting to explore those ambiguities and, like you put it, find out where the edge is and come right up to it and see how people are going to respond. Not unrelated: How many raves did you attend in the course of writing this book?

Oh, a lot. Well, not like raves-raves; I haven’t been to a proper rave in a long time. I was in L.A. recently and I was doing a lot of shit at once and also trying to meet a bunch of my friends’ babies, and I threw myself onto my friends’ floor with her two tiny babies, and I was like, “I’m overextended!” And you know, she’s got two tiny babies, she knows overextended, but she was like, “That’s New York!” She had lived in New York for a long time, and she was like, listen, when you work too much in New York you end up ramping it up with your social life because otherwise you feel like a monster. And I was like yeah, that’s how it is, right, the busier you get at work the more you balance it out so that you remember you have a soul and other priorities.

Oh god, that one hit home. Literally [my boyfriend] was giving me a lecture last night about loosening up. And it’s like—oh, right, I’m an actual person.

You know what I mean? Like yeah, I know you know! These jobs expand to fit our entire days and nights, and we cram in raves to beat back that time.

So, one thing I have been sort of mad at the internet for is not recognizing that you are the original baby.

Thank you so much, Julianne, I KNOW! But actually lately I haven’t been baby anymore, like it’s time for other people to be baby! I was baby when I started but I’m not baby!

Jia, you’ve grown!

I’m truly not baby! It’s wild! I am original baby, though. And you are the only one that recognized that Selena Gomez tried to Roommate me, when she went blonde. My twin! My Slack twin! I used to be baby but now I’m not baby. That is a very sad transition but actually it’s also a good one. Like, maybe it’s not great to be baby anymore. I was young enough when I graduated college that it made me younger than everyone when I was doing all these other things. And I’ve been waiting for a long time, really since I was like 10 years old, to not be super young when I’m doing shit. I’m not quite there, but I’m going to get there real soon, and I wonder if I’ll miss it. But right now I’m like yeah, I’m not baby anymore. But I still have that pacifier you guys gave me.

You’re no longer baby. But do you ever think about your legacy?

Whoa, oh my god, never. Like, literally never. Not even once. Do you?

I mean, I think about if anything will be left of me after I’m dead, having made the decision not to have children, and what will happen to my writing.

I mean, as you know well, there are a lot of things that I’m extremely careful and thoughtful about. And there are a lot of things that just really—like, really—never crossed my mind. A lot of things that I’m just fully thoughtless about and always will be. And one of them, I think, is thinking about the future. I think I’m thoughtful about the past, especially the near past. I have like an almost impossible block—like, the book was the furthest I’d ever thought into the future, and that was two years. I literally can’t conceive of even six months from now.

Part of it might be that I started writing on blogs, and already there’s shit that I wrote at The Hairpin that might be unsearchable, that I might never even be able to see again. There’s a baseline understanding of writing as transient and like a sandcastle, and look, maybe that’s a defensive gesture. Maybe it’s like the LOL nothing matters GIF as a kind of shield against taking yourself seriously sometimes. But I’ve been realizing recently that we’re on the earth for a blink of an eye, and none of it will matter, and no one will remember us like, 40 years after we die. No one will have any idea who we are. Maybe our family, but that’s basically it. And I think that frees me to work as if I didn’t believe that, because if the stakes are both so high and so non-existent, if it’s almost impossible, almost out of the question to leave any sort of mark—to me that’s an impetus to to do as much as I can.

It’s weird, because I think about it all the time, but I also agree with you that in 100 years if we even still exist as a species, probably none of our writing will exist!

Right, and I find that really comforting! I find it a reason to throw myself into it harder, because I’m extremely attracted to transience. One of the reasons that I’m attracted to really, really intense experiences—I’m thinking about “Pyramids,” or something, a song like that, the sheer intensity of every part of it is so much more pleasurable because you know that every 45 seconds it’s gonna switch to a new section, and you love the sections so much because you can hear that they’re about to go away.

You know what I mean? That’s like, you can look into it forever and I think part of my attraction to intensity is because it can’t last forever.

I think that in general that’s how I write, still. It’s like, three-day stretches of really intense, unbroken focus, and then turning my brain off and going to a rave or whatever. We really gotta go to a rave, we haven’t really gone yet together. Well, ever since fuckin’ EDC! [Laughs]

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