Jamie Malanowski Derek Alger One on One

portrait Jamie Malanowski

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 137 ~ October, 2008

Jamie Malanowski is the author of the novel The Coup (Doubleday, 2007), a highly original satire on contemporary politics and journalism and most recently was the managing editor of Playboy Magazine. He is also the author of the novel Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington (Birch Lane, 1992), and co-author with Kurt Andersen and Lisa Birnbach of the play and book, Loose Lips.

A member of the original staff of Spy, where he worked for seven years, Malanowski has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Washington Monthly, and many other publications.

His articles have been anthologized in Spy: The Funny Years by Kurt Andersen, Graydon Carter and George Kalogerakis; Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print, edited by David Wallis; Mirth of a Nation, Volume II: The Best Contemporary Humor, edited by Michael J. Rosen; and The Playboy Book of True Crime.

Originally from Baltimore, Malanowski graduated from LaSalle College in Philadelphia with a B.A. and M.A. in political science. He currently lives in Westchester County with his wife, Ginny, and daughters, Molly and Cara,

Derek Alger: Since we’re approaching a Presidential election, we might as well start with your novel, The Coup. What prompted you to write such a compelling satire of the contemporary world of national politics and journalism?

Jamie Malanowski: Generally, I’ve always been interested in politics, and after spending more than two decades as a journalist of sorts, I’m fascinated by the dysfunctional, co-dependent, antagonistic relationship between politicians and journalists.

More specifically, I began working on the story during the impeachment year of 1998. One commentator said that in attempting to impeach Clinton, Tom DeLay and the Republicans were attempting to stage a coup. And I thought that if that were the case, it wouldn’t be a very good coup. Al Gore would have been well-positioned to run for reelection, and depending on when he actually took office, might have been eligible for another term after that. So I began to wonder what an effective coup would look like — and not a military, Seven Days in May type coup. It seemed to me since the Vice President would be the one to profit from the president’s removal, he would have to be the one behind it. And he couldn’t have too many co-conspirators who could rat him out during an investigation.

DA: Remind me not to get on your bad side.

JM: The other idea that got me going was the observation that whatever else you may have thought about Clinton, his adversaries had him dead to rights. And yet, he was not convicted by the Senate. I began to wonder if I could come up with the opposite – a situation where there was no evidence that the president had committed a crime, but where the mere possibility was so awful that he had to be removed.

DA: That was quite a compliment when after reading The Coup, one reader asked how long you had lived in Washington.

JM: Yes, since I have never lived there. Watching The West Wing was all the research I needed. I’m sure many Washingtonians will say, “Oh no, no, no, it’s really much different,” and I’m sure they’re right, but that program created such a powerful image of what life in the White House is like that all you need to do as a fiction writer is operate mentally in that milieu.

DA: What was the evolution of The Coup?

JM: I first wrote The Coup as a screenplay. Many producers were interested in it, but no studios, and I put it away in a drawer. Some years later, it occurred to me that, well, I knew who the characters were and I knew what was going to happen to them — all the hard thinking had been done — so I may as well try building it into a novel. And that was fun.

Screenplays are a matter of elimination — you shorten scenes, shorten lines, eliminate details — because the actors and the camera will provide all that. A novel allows the writer to fill things in, to create back story, description, interior thoughts, it was fun to explore these characters.

DA: I guess we should try and figure out where you started before you arrived at Playboy.

JM: I was born and raised in Baltimore, the third of four children of a working class family. I had a happy childhood. I was loved. I went to Catholic schools where I did well, and because my mother had aspirations for me, she pushed me to go to more selective, more academically rigorous Christian Brothers High School instead of the local diocesan high school. That’s where I first got encouraged to think that I was a better than average writer.

DA: Did you think like a writer early on?

JM: I was always bright and studious, and always liked to read. I liked stories about history and politics, and my parents always encouraged us to read. But that’s not when I began to think like a writer. I was a writer before I thought like a writer. The “thinking like a writer” — that’s the difference between being a gifted amateur and being a professional, between having some talent and being able to do this for a living. When you think like a writer, you begin to see situations as stories, you begin to think of people as characters, you begin to think about how to express yourself better and better.

DA: And the next step was college.

JM: Yes, every Christian Brothers high school in the Middle Atlantic district got to give a scholarship to the flagship Christian Brothers college in Philadelphia, LaSalle College, now University, and I was a recipient. Clearly, it was a tremendous opportunity, I knew that going in, but it became even clearer after the fact. In other years, lots of guys from my school had gone to LaSalle, but I was the only one who went in my year. So I was kind of free to blossom in peace. There’s an old maxim that advises people to move every seven years, to prevent the person that people think you are from inhibiting the person you’ve become. I was free to do that at college.

DA: You got married at a young age.

JM: Right out of college. Four days after graduation. We met our sophomore year. Ginny leaned out of a second floor window and asked me for a dime as I was walking by.

DA: Are you serious?

JM: Have I lied to you before?

DA: Okay, continue.

JM: But that’s been the secret to our relationship. The moment I give her the dime, we’re over. Anyway, after college I went to grad school at Penn and got an M.A. I thought I would become a professor, but as soon as I got a taste of academic life, I knew it wasn’t for me. People seemed so intense about such inconsequential things. I knew that I could never summon that level of interest.

DA: After grad school, you and your wife moved to New York City.

JM: Yes. Ginny and I graduated together. She had wanted to go to grad school for women’s studies. We decided that she would support us while I got my graduate degree, and then we would switch. Why did I go first? I don’t remember — possibly because I was the one who had the penis. Anyway, during the course of working at a variety of stupid jobs, she changed her mind and decided to become a midwife. And so we came to New York City in the summer of 1977, and she went to Columbia, first for nursing school and then midwifery school. I ended up working for Bella Abzug in the mayoral election, living through the blackout, the riots, Son of Sam, and the Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin tumult, reading Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, and learning a tremendous amount about New York.

DA: You had an important experience after that.

JM: More than one, I think. But after working in a bunch of campaigns, I ended up working for Tony Olivieri, a young and charismatic member of the New York City Council. Tony had money and looks and high ideals, and he aspired to higher office, and I was hired to help manage his political affairs. But tragically, he developed a brain tumor, and died on election day 1980, at the age of 40. He was a good man.

The best part of that job — what has turned out to be the most useful part of that job — was that I saw firsthand the calculations politicians make as they decide where to go, what to say to the media, how to vote, whose ass to kiss, which punches to pull. Koch was the mayor when I worked down there, and he was like the king. Tony was some nobleman on the periphery, and those of us who worked for Tony were minor courtiers, with a privileged but not particularly close view of the king’s chambers. One never had to bow or curtsy, but we had a bowing and curtsying relationship to the mayor.

DA: What happened next?

JM: After that, I went to work for a public relations agency. Aren’t you people tired of my meandering progress through life?

DA: Not yet.

JM: There were things I liked about that job — I liked the people I worked with and made some lasting friendships. My boss was a man named John Scanlon, who was a jolly rogue. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as full of life. And although I was good at PR — I knew what angles to take with which journalists — I didn’t like it. There’s a lot of subservience in the job, a lot of hat-in-the-hand moments when you’re dealing with the clients or dealing with the media, and I didn’t like it. And after a while, I realized that I could do a better job writing the stories I was pitching than the people I was pitching could.

So after a couple years, I quit and tried being a freelance writer. The month I left, I published features in The Atlantic and in Harper’s. In the following two years, I published nothing. Eventually, I sold some short pieces to Spin and New York, and then I got my big break: Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter decided to start Spy.

DA: And you fortuitously found yourself a member of the original staff of Spy.

JM: Yes, and it was without a doubt the best experience of my career. For one thing, we laughed every day. I think that’s way above the national average. For another thing, the people I worked with were all bright and funny, and together we had great esprit — as though we were a bunch of kids who had taken over a pirate ship. Kurt and Graydon were excellent people to work for. Graydon had great joie de vivre, and Kurt was whip smart; when one or both thought you had done something well, or what you wrote or said was something that made them laugh, I never felt prouder. No accolade I have ever received has ever meant as much, no doubt because I was unproved and insecure and doubted whether I could amount to anything. This drove me, as I’m sure it drove all of us, to throw everything I had into each issue. I know I’ve never been as productive, and I wonder whether it’s because I’m no longer as creative, or whether it’s because I have never again been surrounded by so many creative people in an environment where my creativity was so encouraged.

My other colleagues — Susan Morrison, Bruce Handy, Joanne Gruber, to name a few — were great to work with.

There was an interesting dynamic — sometimes there were rivalries and sometimes we were jealous of one another (I, at least, was sometimes jealous of them), but this spurred us forward, and in the end, we always took great pride in what we accomplished together and what we built together. I’m proud of the success we all have had in the years since we split up.

DA: How did your collaborative effort Loose Lips come about with Kurt Andersen and Lisa Birnbach come about?

JM: Loose Lips, for those whose knowledge of off-off Broadway in the mid-nineties is less than it should be, was a revue Kurt Anderson and Lisa Birnbach and I constructed out of found utterances — court transcripts, conversations had in front of open microphones, testimony at hearings, wiretaps — many of which involved celebrities, people like Orson Wells, Tommy Lasorda, Clarence Thomas, Ronald Reagan, Heidi Fleiss, Charles Manson, Marion Barry and so on. We had a talented group of young actors perform these bits, which were hilariously funny and deeply revealing. Spy called “When Disney Ruled America,” about what would happen if Michael Eisner became president, and together we turned it into a play that had a staged reading at the public theater. Lisa, who had become an editor at Spy in its waning days, had a lot of show business connections, and Kurt, who had moved back to Time magazine, was enthusiastic about the idea. Anyway, we put together the show and produced it several times — first at a piano bar in the West Village called the 88s, later at a club on the upper west side called The Triad, then in Los Angeles, and finally once again at the 88s. The collaboration was great fun.

I don’t know how people who do theater for a living have time for anything else, because you end up going to all the performances. It’s like six o’clock rolls around, and if you don’t have anything pressing to do — like extinguishing a fire in your attic — you say, “I know, I’ll go to the show!”

DA: And then on to the HBO movie Pentagon Wars. What was that experience like?

JM: Pentagon Wars was about the development of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle — the infighting that accompanied its development, and the struggle among some officers to prevent other officers from building a vehicle that was an insufficiently armored death trap. It was based on the memoirs of one of those officers and I was hired to adapt the book.

I enjoyed that process — it was a fun exercise, a challenge to my imagination, and I liked it very much. I found the subsequent parts of the process to be weird. There was a revision process, which was fine, and I was told at the end of that time how much everybody liked the screenplay. At that point, another executive read it and didn’t like it, and I was fired.

I think six more writers eventually were hired to work on the screenplay, many of whom were given very different instructions. Finally, I was hired back and told to restore large portions of my original screenplay, at which point I was fired again, and one of the other writers was rehired and told to restore portions of his screenplay. I ended up getting co-credit for the screenplay, although only a few scenes that were actually mine remain; Writers Guild rules make it very, very difficult for the original writer to be denied credit.

The thing I didn’t like is that people weren’t honest with me. As a consequence, it made it impossible for me to improve. I don’t really mind hearing that something I’ve written isn’t working, as long as it’s possible for someone to explain why, and what I need to do to improve. That didn’t happen.

DA: Over the years, you’ve done a lot of freelance journalism for magazines and newspapers.

JM: A great many journalists — most, I would say — construct careers by learning a lot about a field, building a vast network of contacts within it, and doing a lot of great reporting.

Well, reporting has never been a strength of mine; in Henry Luce’s classic dichotomy between reporters and writers, I’m clearly on the writing end. My knowledge about most things is more broad than deep (even when it is narrow and shallow, it is less narrow than it is less shallow), and I’ve got a clear writing style that I can fancy-up or funny-up without much trouble. And I’ve been lucky to understand that if an idea can’t work for Newspaper X, it can, with a little bit of effort, be made to work for Newspaper Y. And finally, much more than a lot of my friends, I’ve been willing to scramble around and write pieces for a little bit of dough. They, on the other hand, eschewed freelancing, went out and got staff jobs at publications, and now have to worry about how adversely the stock market crisis affects their 401K accounts. Not smart like me, eh?

DA: I’ve learned to never underestimate persistence.

JM: Yes, persistence is important, particularly early on, before you’ve developed a reputation and have figured things out. There are a lot of thresholds young writers have to pass through on the way to becoming old writers, and one of the earliest ones is Wanting It — wanting to be a writer enough to put up with all the rejection you have to accept while you’re learning. Wanting It isn’t sufficient, but finding out who wants it is a way that the herd culled the dreamers from the doers.

Here’s a true story: when I went to work at Spy as a staff writer, I brought with me 15 or 20 story ideas. This was my first writing job, and I had no experience working on a staff. The ideas were printed on index cards and posted on a wall along with ideas of other staff members. After a while, those ideas got assigned — and none went to me. My ideas went to other people. And they did a fine job with them — one fellow turned a gem of an idea into an essay that got nominated for a National Magazine Award. After a couple months, I asked how come I wasn’t assigned any of those pieces. I was told that I hadn’t asked. So that was a useful lesson. No editor or publisher ever wakes up in the morning, looks out his window, and scans the landscape for a brilliant writer who’s just too shy to put himself or herself forward. It’s a put yourself forward business, at every level.

DA: How’d you end up at Playboy?

JM: I came to Playboy four years ago. I had just concluded a happy but all-too-short stint at a fine publication called Jungle that ran out of cash. I had written a number of articles for Playboy over the years, and I called my editor there, Chris Napolitano, to let him know I was keen to freelance again. As it turned out, Chris had just been appointed Editorial Director, and he was looking for a Senior Editor, and I was the right man in the right place at the right time. About six months later, the Managing Editor left for another opportunity, and Chris asked me to take over that portfolio, and I was delighted to do so.

DA: Give us an idea of a day in the life of the managing editor of Playboy.

JM: I have several main responsibilities. One, I am nominally charged with making the trains run on time. In truth, much of that work is performed by Dave Pfister, the assistant managing editor, who does all the trafficking, and then, once in a while, drags me out to admonish the dilatory members of the team. Two, I top edit everything in the magazine, acting in a quality control capacity. Three, I oversee several sections of the magazine, which means I mostly nod my head and say “Great idea!” to the very capable fellows who actually manage those sections, though on occasion I throw in an idea or two. Four, I actually work with writers and commission stories.

So among the things I’ve done in this last week, for example, is work with former Senator Gary Hart on a piece that I commissioned him to write for the December issue, edit a piece I solicited from Joe Queenan for our January issue, answered copy editor queries for a piece I wrote about model Carol Alt, oversaw a planning meeting for our annual Year in Sex feature, weighed in on a bunch of layouts, threw my two cents worth in on which photos should appear in our Grapevine section, sat in on some redesign meetings, signed a bunch of pay authorizations, nagged some fellows about late section line-ups that were due, edited the Playboy blog every day, and attended the first annual Sexie Awards ceremony. (This, by the way, is an award given to sex Positive journalism; Playboy finished first, second and third in the magazine category; the first place story, Sex in Iran by Pari Esfandiari and Richard Buskin, was a piece I edited.

DA: So, tell us, are you really a wild and crazy guy in a bathrobe?

JM: I do own a bathrobe, but I think it’s chenille. I have been married to my wife Ginny for 33 years, and we have two daughters, 15 and 20. God sends us no burdens he does not think us capable of carrying, and he has not seen fit to burden me with living a Playboy lifestyle.

DA: I see you have recently discovered the joys of blogging.

JM: Yes, although I’d use the word `joys’ skeptically. I blog on my own site jamiemalanowski.com mostly as a diary of what I’ve done and what I’m thinking about the times I live in and the doings of the day. I had never kept a diary, and I’m enjoying this. It’s like an archive. I spend about a half hour a day on it, and I have a weekly readership of about 5. Deservedly.

I also edit and contribute to the Playboy blog (blog.playboy.com), which is a group blog maintained by Playboy’s editors. This is a great opportunity for us as a magazine, since we get to address events that working with a three month lead would ordinarily prevent us from addressing, like the elections, and it gives us a chance as individuals to write about all sorts of things that for one good reason or another wouldn’t turn into an article in the magazine. And it’s good for Playboy, because in this way we can be a daily visitor in our readers’ lives, not just a monthly guest. Our blog feels like a newsletter or a mini-magazine, and I think it’s pretty lively.

But blogging in general is something I don’t quite understand. From what I see from most blogs, the writing is harried and prosaic, and the insights are fleeting. It seems mostly a medium more for people who want to express themselves than for people who want to be read, and that’s a big problem. Writers need to be read. It’s part of the deal. It’s what makes writing worthwhile. It’s why we put up with all the rejection, so that eventually we’ll be read.

Obviously I’m not talking about everybody. There are some excellent blogs, and some terrific people are doing a good job to create useful content in a new medium. But right now, millions of people are blogging, and most are really talking to themselves.