A Q&A with Vanessa Grigoriadis on writing fast, putting stories away, and documentary-style writing
by Meagan Flynn
Vanessa Grigoriadis—a National Magazine Award-winner who has written dozens of features for New York, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others—is a writer that many of us can envy: Over the years, writing has gotten progressively easier for her. She writes at a freaky-fast pace. And her initial visions for her stories, she says, work out 75 percent of the time. Essentially, a writer’s dream. But Grigoriadis also shares what she finds are the hardest parts of the job and her various quirks (hint: elaborate procrastination), and how, once an aspiring actress, she came to choose writing instead.
I’m sure that you’ve probably answered this question for people so many times, but what’s your backstory, and how did you get to where you are now?
Well, I grew up in Manhattan, and I did a lot of performance arts. So I was a violinist, and I danced a lot. I did a lot of theatre. And I always wrote. I was somebody who read and spoke and all that very early and was kind of precocious in that area. I was an English major at college, but really had no idea what I was going to do. I thought I was going to do something more performance-oriented rather than writing.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Wesleyan. But, after college, I casted around to try to figure out like, what do I do now? I never wrote for the school paper or anything like that. But I had loved Adam Moss’s first magazine, 7 Days, and thought it would be fun to write film reviews. I ended up applying for an internship at New York magazine, which I got and then quit like a day later—which was absurd. And then I bumped into the woman who had hired me on the subway about two months later, and she said, “Oh, well we have a real job that’s open now. Do you want to come in and interview for it?” I ended up getting that job and starting a couple days later.
Oh, wow. What was the entry-level position that you had?
I was an editorial assistant to Michael Hirschorn, who was the executive editor at that time.
So when you were deciding what you were gonna do after college, what made you choose journalism?
When I started working at New York magazine, it was my day job. It was fun, but I didn’t really know that I had any sort of future in it. I would say for the first two or three years, I was pretty ambivalent. But I loved reading New York magazine. We had a physical library where we had copies of every magazine—New York magazine still has quite a large library. But I would have to go and grab copies of different stories for people, and sometimes I would Xerox them and send them to different feature writers who wanted to do research. I would always make a copy for myself. I became very enamored with all of the ‘70s and ‘80s writers in New York magazine and the voices of writers like Tom Wolfe, obviously—people who had such dramatic flair.
That first year I think I read everything of Tom Wolfe and started to try to emulate that. That was when I realized I didn’t really want to write reviews. I didn’t want to be a critic. And I definitely didn’t want to do service journalism, which was the only thing that they were giving me to do—the kinds of the things that were really tedious, but they were part of the job. I liked doing it, but I knew that that wouldn’t be anything challenging enough. And so I started to try to write stories that were in the old voice of the magazine.
At that time, the New York Observer was a very dominant newspaper in town, and George Gurley and Candace Bushnell and all of those people were very influential on my writing—the idea being that you could go and do these silly interviews with people and write funny things about them before the word “snark” existed. We’d publish almost the transcript of what was said, as opposed to now, when everything’s very commentary based. If you really look at those stories, they’re basically Q&As with lots of descriptive sentences thrown in. They’re not really all that molded. They’re free-form and funny—they’re supposed to be funny. They’re very Tom Wolfe. They’re very, “Here are these people; they’re the most important people in the city right now, and we’re having this funny conversation with them where we kind of tweak them a little bit and describe them in all of their surreality.” So they’re supposed to be very documentary-style—just hanging out. I did that, and then when I was 25, I wrote this story that got a lot of attention and then everybody else in town wanted to hire me. The editor of New York magazine at the time was Caroline Miller. She said, “Well, do you want to stay?” And I was like, “I want to be a writer.” I don’t want to be one of these people who have to do the classical music listings and dance listings and have to open all the packages for the book reviewer. I don’t want to be a junior editor. I knew at that point that I didn’t want to be an editor.
So you asked to get off that track?
Right, yeah. I said, “Please, do not make me an editor.” Then I basically have been doing the same thing since then, which is just a ton of longform stories. I think that the content of those stories has changed, or the tone is slightly different, but it’s all basically the same stuff.
How would you say your tone and your style have evolved since then?
I think it is a lot less free-form. I think I’m a very traditional magazine writer at this point, where I understand innately how to structure a story, and I’m not interested in screwing with the form, because ultimately it’s the content that interests me, and that’s what I’m excited about. I enjoy that it’s so easy for me to write articles now, because it just allows me to focus on the content. I’m not one of these people who thinks it’s, like, terrible to start a story like, “On a warm day in September…” It’s fine—start the story that way. Who cares? It’s just a way to get into it, you know?
So many people say that it gets harder, or that it doesn’t ever get any easier. But you feel that writing has gotten easier for you?
I think writing gets easier for me all the time. Well, I think it’s a little harder for me now that I have a child. I can’t go into the zone and push everything away for a few days, which is the way that I used to do my writing. Now I have to do it in a more traditional way of working for several hours a day and then going home and dealing with a baby.
I definitely think that there’s a fine line between somebody who writes really fast and is sloppy and somebody who writes really fast and that energy is doing something good for the story. I have a method where I write a skeletal piece incredibly quickly. And then depending on who I work for—some editors I’ll just send it to them, to show what the piece is going to look like. Other places I’ll keep the skeleton and I’ll put it away for a little bit and then I’ll take it out, and then I’ll start meddling with it, then I’ll start filling it out, slowly going through and fixing the sentences. The skeleton is, “here’s my vision for the story, and I’m going to write it down and just put a million pieces all over the place and work from there.” Sometimes I throw out that whole vision, but that’s relatively rare. I’d say for 75 percent of the stories I write, the structure is exactly the structure that I sat down and started with the first time.
Is that something you envision as you’re reporting? Does it come together throughout that process or does it come together when you sit down to outline?
I have this thing where, as soon as I hear what the ending of the piece will be, I immediately start packing my bags and try to get out of the interview, because that’s it. That’s all I need to know. Yeah, I think about it, but I don’t think about it like, “Where is the beginning?” I’ve done this enough to know like, OK, if it’s a 6,000-word story, I need four scenes of action. Did I get the four scenes? OK I got them. If it’s a 2,500-word story, I only need two or three scenes of action. Did I get them? OK. You can over-report a piece and hurt your piece by over-reporting it. So I’m always a little wary. I used to be really, really into just spending a ton of time with people. And now I’m a little wary of that, because I don’t want too much information. It depends, really, on the complexity of the story. But it can be very hard to organize if you have way too much.
Do you have any quirks in your writing process?
I don’t know if it’s a quirk, but if I feel stuck, if I don’t know what the beginning is, I’ll write something really easy, just to get things started. I do something that is probably not what a lot of journalists do—and is definitely not good for the environment—which is I usually make two files; sometimes I’ll make bigger files, multiple files if it’s a more complicated story. I make one file with all my transcripts and notes in it. And then I make another file with the research in it—and I do crazy amounts of research. Like crazy crazy. I’ll print out both of those files—even if they’re 500 pages—and I go lie down on a couch or a hammock. I’ll spend a whole day reading it, marking off what I want. Sometimes I’ll transfer all those marked sections into a new file, so I’ll have one file of 25 pages of all the stuff I want that I know I’m going to use. Other times I’ll just begin pulling things out of the files and start writing.
Do you generally have like a rigid outline structure, or is it just once you find what you’re looking for—
Um, what’s an outline?
I can’t outline either! It’s good to know I’m not alone.
I will write things down. It’s a form of outlining, I guess. I will take a pen in my hand and be like, “OK, there’s five sections here. Which one’s first and which one’s second? And what do I want to say that’s going this direction?” You know? I definitely have an idea of that, and I will do some outlining. I know a lot of people do, and it’s good to outline. But I don’t feel the need for it, really. I think I kind of know where things are going. I mean my whole focus in writing is just to write really fast. That’s my focus. I procrastinate like an insane person. I do so much research that is totally not necessary. I turn over every stone, reading every blog post that’s echoing a piece of information three other blog posts ago. It’s obscene. And that’s my procrastination, I’ve realized.
But it’s a good form of procrastination.
Yeah, it is. But it’s also getting into the too-much-information area. I mean I can do that for a week. I can do that for two weeks. I can call extra sources. I can go out to lunch with my friends. I can go to yoga, think about it, think about it, think about it. But once I start to write something, I want to finish it immediately. When my fingers hit the keyboard, my objective is to make them stop hitting the keyboard. So I really try to write fast.
How have you trained yourself to do that? That’s amazing to me.
I don’t know. I guess I don’t really like writing that much, because I think that, really, if I had it my way, I would just tell these stories through oral storytelling. I’m really an actress at heart. It is satisfying when the puzzle pieces fit correctly in an article. But I don’t know—it’s so weird. I just really try to write fast. And I think it’s so much better for my writing. When I used to agonize over every sentence and every section, the stories were so much worse. My problem is, if the content is not interesting to me, I don’t want to go back and revise it. So then it becomes this grueling thing, like, “God, I really need to fix this.” It’s this dark cloud hanging over me and it bothers me. It’s always very difficult for me when a story isn’t working, and if it also doesn’t interest me anymore and it isn’t working, that’s very hard for me. I keep on trying to put the story away—I think a lot of writers don’t do this enough. But if you just put a story away for 36 or 72 hours, it almost feels like you’re reading someone else’s work. Suddenly you can see all the things that are wrong that you couldn’t see before. You could put it away for two weeks. That’s even better.
Or a few months if you’re Stephen King.
For example, I had a story this year where we fact-checked it, did everything, it was ready to close, and then the magazine held it. For a month. And then it was like, OK, now it’s the next month, and now we’re ready to close it. The magazine sent the final to me. It was basically all done before, but I hadn’t thought about it at all for a month, and I was like, “Oh my God. I need to change everything.” They were like, “It’s too late!” And I said, “But it needs to be changed. Like, everything needs to be changed!” I do have an editor who often tells me that in the eleventh hour I just make everything worse when I try to go back and change everything around. But I think I’m doing the right thing. That’s the kind of the shitty part about blogging: you have to react immediately. I’m in awe of the really, really good bloggers and people who write very quickly—they’re so talented.
So you’ve done a lot of celebrity profiling. What would you say is the key to a solid celebrity profile?
I think it’s action. I think it’s having scenes. If you can get him to take you somewhere, that’s really the key. Going to do something that isn’t just a pre-prepared, like, “We’re going bowling together because my publicist said we have to”—that’s really the key. I say that this a documentary-style piece a lot, because I think subjects understand that. It’s not like we’re gonna sit in a conference room. And I think just not being intimidated. Madonna’s handler once said to this great celebrity profiler Jancee Dunn, “Whatever you do, don’t be afraid, because she can smell fear like a dog.” That’s kind of true about celebrities: they’re very good at sizing people up. So you have to appear to be unimpressed by their presence, or otherwise it can turn really ugly.
What would you say is your favorite type of writing to do, whether it’s the bigger issues, or culture stories, or maybe celebrity profiling—what do you like doing best?
The story that I did about this Mexican drug lord, La Barbie, was really awesome, because it was investigative and it was also a narrative. And it was also a profile. It was the story of this guy’s life and how he rose to become the highest-ranked American in the Mexican drug cartel. And I learned so much about Mexico and about the way drug cartels work—that was really exciting. That’s what I’m always looking for. I don’t want to write about the same things that I wrote about before. I don’t think that people realize how many of those types of stories I’ve done. They tend to see me as a celebrity profiler because those are the stories that get the attention. Something like that Justin Bieber story, which was a no-access story that I wrote for New York a few months ago, that’s not even really a celebrity profile.
It was like a case study.
It was a cultural essay. Like, a reported cultural essay. Everything I do is a reported this or a reported that. I think I’ve made it pretty clear to editors that I’m not really interested in doing something unreported. I don’t want to write a personal essay. I don’t want to write my thoughts about what’s happening in media today. I pretty much look for characters to develop on-site, reporting-type pieces in order to tell the story. That’s just my personal inclination, really.
What would you say is the hardest story you’ve worked on?
Oh, that Justin Bieber story was hard. Let me think about this…. I would say that, leaving aside the stories that were hard because they didn’t work out—the hardest stories are the ones where it’s just no access and you’re pushing and pushing and getting nowhere. Those are the hardest stories. I wrote a story about Madonna’s situation in Malawi with the school that she funded and the tangle with the Kabbalah center. I just didn’t get very far, and I didn’t really get the real story. That’s really the hardest thing, where you feel you devoted a lot of time to sorting something out and ultimately you can’t get to the heart of it. As journalists, we rarely get to the heart of it, obviously. You know, who knows what we’re getting? We try as hard as we can, but that’s all we can do. I think that’s really a bummer, when you feel that you’ve wasted basically two months of your life doing an investigation, and ultimately you need to write a piece just because you have to—you know, it’s your job. But you don’t feel really good about it. And that’s a piece where I do end up spending a ton of time on the writing, because at the very least I want the writing to be really finessed if the reporting is kind of lacking.
Do you have any techniques you use in your writing that you always return to?
Oh my God, yes. I have the same grab bag of tricks each time, pretty much. It’s all about the details and grabbing those details, either on site with the subject or going back later and asking, what color is this? That’s one thing. I think it’s pretty clear that with good writing and particularly good articles, you identify a theme, and then you turn that theme up and down and around until you arrive at a different place than you were at the beginning. The easiest way to do that is with repetition. Any time I see somebody use the same word more than twice in an interview, I become interested in that word.
Like for a thematic purpose?
For a thematic purpose, exactly. And I’d hate to harp on this point, but I really want to say that my trick is just to do it really fast. I think that, for young writers, that is the number one lesson. It took me so long to learn.
Oh my God, I can’t do that. I’ve gotten slower over the years, actually. It’s terrible.
I wasted so much time in my twenties, so many Saturday afternoons, worrying about this sentence, rewriting it. You sort of just rewrite the life right out of the sentence. I think that, if you write really fast, you have something to work from. I’m not saying it’s done. Although I mean, I will admit, I started writing a story this morning, and I’m desperate to finish it. Like as soon as I get off the phone with you, I’m going to see how late I can stay up to finish this thing. I do not want to wake up in the morning and think about it again—but I honestly don’t know if that’s gonna happen because my schedule got a little screwed up. I know that columnists tend to work this way too, where they procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate.
And then they have to write something.
Yeah, vomit out the thing. But I think that even if you don’t want to turn the story into an editor right away, it’s a really good exercise to just try giving yourself an hour to write 500 words, then make sure that they connect with the next 500 words.
I’ll have to try that. So lastly, who are your influences? What are you reading?
Well, I love all the writers at The New Yorker. Ariel Levy and Dana Goodyear. I like Michael Specter’s work a lot. I love Lawrence Wright’s work a lot. I really love Lawrence Wright’s work. I like Lisa Miller at New York magazine, and Janet Reitman at Rolling Stone. Ben Wallace I think has done some really good stories this year. Jessica Pressler—I think she’s a phenomenal writer. She’s so hilarious.
I can’t get over her tone.
Yeah. And then Erik Hedegaard is this writer at Rolling Stone that I love. He’s hilarious. He does a lot of celebrity profiles. I really like Bryan Burrough at Vanity Fair, and Suzanna Andrews, all of those hardcore, investigative writers with serious writing chops I think are inspiring. That cohort of people who I imagine to be my colleagues are my primary influences, really.
Well I’ll have to let you get back to writing this piece so you can quickly crank it out.
See an early Beyond The New Yorker post on Grigoriadis’ “The Tragedy of Britney Spears” here.