As Lucinda Trout approaches her thirtieth birthday, she's deep in debt, single, and about to lose her rent-stabilized apartment at Broadway and Ninety-fourth Street in Manhattan. An associate producer at a local television magazine show called New York Up Early, Lucinda reports on such weighty, prize-worthy subjects as takeout sushi's rising popularity among midtown office workers, thong underwear ("can you learn to live with a permanent wedgie?"), and bridal registry etiquette.
"My goal was to work for PBS or National Public Radio," Daum's narrator explains at the outset of The Quality of Life Report. "And somehow I'd ended up holding a microphone in one hand and sliding a finger of the other hand under the thong underwear of a willing clerk at a SoHo underwear boutique to show 'how roomy a thong can really be.'" Lucinda is ready to leave New York.
Fans of Meghan Daum's celebrated essays and radio pieces will recognize a share of the author's personal story in Lucinda's trajectory. "The novel is about 32.9% autobiographical," Daum estimates. A few years back, in the title essay of My Misspent Youth, Daum described her own motivations for exchanging life in Manhattan for the open spaces of rural Nebraska. That essay earned the young author a place in a New Yorker anthology and heady comparisons to Joan Didion, whose "Goodbye To All That" set the lofty standard for leaving-New York confessional back in 1967.
"Always funny, often painfully so, The Quality of Life Report is more than simply satirical," novelist Ruth Ozeki raved. "It is an intelligent and heartfelt tale of a young woman, making radical choices and waking up to her life."
Dave: We were talking in the office earlier about the string of male authors that have been here for interviews lately. It's just been a quirk of the schedule, I think, but here you are, finally. The Quality of Life Report is not so male-centric.
Meghan Daum: I think this book is very male-centric. With the stallion scene as its centerpiece.
Dave: See, I was going to try to remain professional and not mention Lucky's untimely release?
Dave: No, I could take the conversation in this direction if you'd like. Honestly, I was just telling my girlfriend about that particular scene last night. When I met her, she was working at a barn, "collecting" stallions, to use the industry euphemism. That was her job.
Daum: At a semen center. Wow.
Dave: So, you see, I have all sorts of personal experience in this matter.
Daum: I always say that's the only part of the book that actually happened in my life.
Dave: And are you telling the truth when you say that?
Daum: I always say it.
Dave: Okay. Let's use this as an opportunity to make a transition. In both your fiction and your nonfiction, it's very hard to draw the line between what is autobiographical and what has been fabricated for the page.
Daum: Let me speak to the novel first. Again, what I say and actually, what I believe true is that the novel is about 32.9% autobiographical. For me, what that means is that the things that came most from my experience and thoughts and feelings are the theories that Lucinda, the narrator, has: her often half-baked philosophies about things.
At the core of the book is this whole "margin of error" idea, the way the stakes are so much higher, in many ways, the greater the population density. Yes, I did move from New York to Nebraska. A lot of people know that about me. But my observations in doing that had to do with what happens when you're allowed to make mistakes. In a weird way, the sort of rich and authentic life Lucinda is looking for is only possible when she has the freedom to really mess up. That was something she couldn't do in a big city, in New York. There's a paralysis that people get into in these cities because they're so terrified of going to the wrong college or dating the wrong person or having the wrong apartment that they actually end up doing nothing. So I was interested in that idea.
Writing the novel involved a process of inventing characters and a story that would illustrate that principle. As an essayist for so long, I was really driven by thematic elements. That idea was what came first.
Dave: In the essay, "My Misspent Youth," you write, "I've always been somebody who spends a great deal of time to get my realities to match my fantasies."
In The Quality of Life Report, Lucinda goes to the Midwest and arguably, okay, now she has room to screw up and she's living a little freer, but is her life any more real? She's still creating a lifestyle for herself.
Daum: In the beginning, yes. She's been conditioned by her surroundings in New York and that particular value system. Not only is it her assignment to create a fabricated persona and existence for herself in the Midwest for the TV reports, it's her inclination. She really can't tell the difference.
I wanted to show how somebody like her and a lot of us, including myself at times tries so hard to create a romanticized world for herself. With Lucinda, it's only when things start really going badly, when she gives herself over to her own version of prairie madness, that she begins living authentically. About halfway through the novel, she's living pretty goddamn authentically, in a way she didn't want to be living at all.
Dave: She has a dream, and she starts to build it, with the farmhouse and Mason and the rest. The dream traps her more and more. She can't get to town when it snows because of her crappy little car. She can't handle the animals in the barn at first, which means she's totally reliant on Mason. She's building a little prison for herself out in the prairie.
Daum: I was also interested in trying to link up the idea of coming from the east, that journey west, the Homestead Act and the whole idea of "quality of life" that was sold to people, even back then. If you look at propaganda posters that were shown to people in Europe and back east in the 1860s, they indicated that you could turn a little barren patch of land into a thriving farm in six years. It struck me that the simplicity movement that was popular a couple years ago had a lot of similarities to that.
This whole notion that it's somehow easy and simpler to live in the country is such a fallacy. When I moved to Nebraska, I was asked repeatedly by different magazines to write about how I had simplified myself or cleansed my soul. And I wrote those pieces. I did them for the Oprah magazine and Real Simple and even for the radio. And after a while I started feeling really hypocritical about that because not only was it misrepresenting my own experience, but it was selling the people in these types of communities short. They're just as complicated, if not more complicated, than the rest of us. It was reductive and unfair to keep throwing that image out at people. For me, this book is really a media critique as much as anything.
Dave: Lucinda's TV show is a source of much of the novel's humor. Someday the book is going to be a movie?
Daum: Well, we hope it will be a movie.
Dave: Are you involved with the screenwriting?
Daum: I was hired to adapt it.
Dave: Because the book is very active, for one thing. There's a lot going on.
Daum: And it has a lot of characters.
Dave: A lot of characters, a lot of dialogue. It's not hard to imagine it visually.
Daum: It's funny that you say there's a lot of dialogue because the stuff I really like to do as a writer are those long, ruminating passages, and I still get criticized that in this book that there are too many of those and not enough dialogue.
Dave: Well, I wasn't thinking so much of eighteen-page passages with two people stuck in a room together talking, but rather of the repartee, the quick back-and-forth.
Daum: You don't mean to compare it with My Dinner with André?
Dave: No. Maybe you'll write that book next.
Daum: Well, it was a challenge for me to do a plot because I'd been an essayist and a journalist. I had to be vigilant about moving things along and being entertaining.
I had a lot of fun writing this book because I was laughing a lot. It's a dark comedy, but it is very much a comedy. I'm a satirist at heart, so just to be able to infuse those elements in a way that had a narrative structure and characters? that was fun. In terms of the film, a lot of those characters had to be jettisoned and some elements were changed quite significantly.
Dave: How many different types of things are you working on at any given time? Essays, a novel, a film script?
Daum: Well, I'll usually be writing an essay for a magazine, some kind of reported piece. I've been doing this script now for several months. And I'm trying to work on a new novel. So probably just those three forms. I don't write poetry.
Dave: That's probably for the best.
Daum: It is good, isn't it? For me and for the public, it's good.
Dave: Some movie fans here in the office found out I was interviewing a woman who lives in Nebraska and they wanted me to ask you about About Schmidt.
Daum: I loved About Schmidt. I like Alexander Payne's work a lot. I thought Election was brilliant.
I think it's interesting that a lot of the criticism of the movie came from people outside the Midwest. In New York, more than L.A., I think, the media critic guard sort of assumes that if you portray rural people in an authentic way you therefore must be making fun of them, which says more about the people making that accusation than the people making the films or the books. I thought that was a revealing line of criticism.
Dave: You once reported a very funny segment for This American Life about a group of men who watch The Young and the Restless every day at the grain silo where they work. How did you find them?
Daum: That's an elevator in Lincoln. I'm friends with a guy who worked in the elevator not the guy in the novel, but in that piece. One of the wives had said, "Oh, it's so funny. These guys sit around and watch The Young and the Restless. They're addicted to it." I thought, Wow, that's a great story.
I have mixed feelings about it now because I did the report for This American Life, and they were cooperative and enthusiastic about it, but I also thought they were a little wary of the tone. I work really hard not to have a kitsch tone to any of my work, particularly radio stuff, which sometimes goes in that direction on certain programs. But those men do exist.
Dave: A lot of your reporting, not just that piece, is about the perception non-Midwesterners have of the Midwest. It would have been very easy for that piece to simply mock the subjects, but it didn't. That said, I have no idea how a young guy listening in Brooklyn would respond to it.
Daum: Well, to answer the first part of your comment, I am an outsider. I'm not a Midwesterner; I'm a New Yorker, basically. That's my perspective.
I am really on the lookout against doing that sort of looking down your nose, snide, provincial New York thing. But I don't know. If the man in Brooklyn works at an auto repair place, I bet his colleagues would sit around and watch The Young and the Restless, too.
Dave: But it's one thing to watch soap operas every day, or even to joke among your friends, and it's another to go nationally in the media with your obsession. The funniest part, I thought, was the one man who interrupted another to clarify the intricacies of the show's plot lines.
Daum: I'm not a soap opera viewer. I've never watched a soap opera all the way through, and it probably would have been a better story if I had been able to join in on the conversation about the storyline. But I don't know. I'd bet there are a lot of guys in Brooklyn who watch soaps. And everywhere.
Dave: In another piece for This American Life, you visited the hometown of Laura Ingalls Wilder: DeSmet, South Dakota. The bit that really stuck with me was the woman who remembered the day electricity, and specifically electric lighting, came to the town. She talked about being able to see her neighbor's place at night instead of staring into complete darkness. "Suddenly it wasn't a black country anymore," she said. "We could see our neighbor's lights. It made it seem a lot less lonesome."
Daum: I forgot about that portion of the interview. She was great. I found it remarkable that a contemporary person sitting in front of me would have had that experience. It wasn't actually that long ago. She was talking about the late forties.
Dave: Here's another phrase lifted out of your writing. This one appears in the foreword of My Misspent Youth. Perhaps you could discuss "the sociopolitical impact of R.E.M. videos on those who were born between 1965 and 1978."
Daum: If I could discuss it, I would have actually managed to write that essay.
I had had this theory, which I still have, that the aesthetic change that occurred around the early nineties, the "realness," the hand-held camera kind of technique in R.E.M. videos that bled over into commercials and independent cinema of that time, made a strong impression on our generation.
I think the reason I never managed to flesh this out as an essay is that a lot of it came from my impressions growing up in the suburbs, which were very much informed by the fifties and very controlled aesthetically. It was very boring and bland. There was no sense in my town that the fifties had ever really gone away. The Big Chill was still a major reference point and point of enthusiasm for sixteen-year-olds. Now I look back and I remember being eighteen or something and watching that video for "Stand" and thinking, Wow, that's what the rest of the world looks like. That's what real life looks like. These houses in the video and the streets where they're walking, that's what a real street looks like, not this manicured suburban lawn. I got really interested in finding a quote-unquote "real" place, and I never really managed to find it. I think Lincoln is about as close as I've come.
If you reprint what I just said, you have to qualify it by saying that I know it doesn't make any sense.
Dave: Well, you never wrote the essay, so you're off the hook.
Daum: No, and we can see why.
Dave: I also grew up in the suburbs, and we're the same age. We grew up with similar influences. So why did New York seem more real to you? Was it the literary community? Was it the intellectualism? A yearning for salon society, like a Paris of the twenties kind of thing?
Daum: It wasn't literary. Again, this was in the mind of a nineteen-year-old and I did write an essay about this but I would see these images in Woody Allen movies where people lived in funky apartments with chipping paint, and they talked in a way that had a sort of naturalism to it that you don't see in a television show or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, for example. I guess I was really attracted to that because I thought that this was what genuine, authentic people did. Of course, it wasn't until moving there that I realized it's what genuine, upper-upper middle class people did who had the fortune to have inherited certain real estate properties.
Dave: In the novel, Lucinda floats the idea that if an interviewer gives a little of herself up, her subject will be more likely to open up, too. It made me think about your style of writing, which is always on the fringe of autobiography, mixing fiction and nonfiction to various degrees, and whether there is something you expect to gain by admitting your own faults on the page. Is that a conscious device to win over the reader?
Daum: It's a device to get the reader to want to read. And I tell students this all the time: Write the most embarrassing thing about yourself. Not only does it have a way of making the story less embarrassing because you're using it to a good end, but the experience of reading, I think, is in a lot of ways about saying, This author articulated what I can't articulate myself.
For me, writing is an outward act. I never sit down to write anything unless I feel like it's going to go beyond my own experience and touch on something larger that's happening in the culture. Otherwise, it's memoir, and I'm not a memoirist; I'm an essayist. I make a really strong distinction between those two things.
The whole idea of confessing? The goal at the end of the essay is to get the reader to feel like they know everything about that narrator. But they don't necessarily know everything about me. I think you kind of pick and choose your moments.
In the novel, yes, Lucinda has students and she tells them to confess their worst sin, or something like that. But it's balanced against this passage toward the beginning where she's talking really smugly about interviewing women who are meth addicts. It's exhilarating for her to interview them because she feels like such a saint. One woman is pouring her heart out, and Lucinda says something like, "I'm losing my apartment lease," as if that's equivalent. For me, as the writer, I know that the narrator is extremely misguided in this section. But I think part of her journey and I hate using that word, but it applies here is realizing that she can go into that margin of error as readily as anyone. So I think when she says that at the end, it's coming from a place of wisdom, whereas at the beginning it's just coming from a hothead.
Dave: I've been tempted to ask about Sam Shepard.
Daum: Why? Do you know him? Is he here?
Dave: Sam! Come on in here. No, here's not here.
Daum: I think he's filed a restraining order against me.
Dave: Is this another obsession from your childhood, another Little House on the Prairie? Or was it fully a construction for this novel that you decided Sam Shepard would be Lucinda's image of the ideal man on the prairie?
Daum: I do like Sam Shepard, but not as much as Lucinda. I just think it works as a motif because he's not the most obvious. If it were Harrison Ford, I think that would be a little pedestrian. The idea of liking Sam Shepard is a little random and a little rarified. And it's ridiculous because he's thirty years older than she is. And he's a total mess. He, in a certain way, at least in his persona, has many of Mason's worst qualities. It just adds to her ridiculousness, in a way, that she's obsessed with him.
Dave: Her relationship with Mason: As a reader I buy it, but as a detached observer of this woman's judgment? Just the way they meet is like, Hold on, you're going to date this person?
Daum: Right. She's in Prairie City, and she's doing things she would never have done in her old life. But for whatever reason, she's taking these risks and that leads her into a rich, interesting experience. Just the way Mason has made one mistake after another, but his life is plenty interesting.
Dave: In the opening essay of My Misspent Youth, "On the Fringes of the Physical World," you describe an unusual personal relationship that started when you received an email from a stranger, a fan of your writing. Completely confessional?
Daum: The piece is not completely confessional. It has that tone, and I wanted to convey an intimacy with the reader. But I did find myself in that situation; that did happen to me. It was so intense and weird that it seemed like a good thing to write about.
It's really a piece that's useful in explaining the three-step process of my essay writing. The first step is: This happened and it's interesting. The second step is: A lot of people are experiencing this. It's not just about me; it's a larger cultural phenomenon.
The third step and I didn't start writing the piece until I had this mapped out in my mind I call it an intellectual hook, something rhetorical I can hang the piece on. In this case, the hook is that Internet dating, or the whole notion of corresponding with someone you don't know, is often chalked up to some kind of postmodern malaise, some negative aspect of society. What's happened to us? But I realized that the impulse behind it was quite old-fashioned. It was epistolary. It was Victorian. There was a structure to that form of courtship that people were craving. It's dating in the "real world" that's chaotic. What was seducing people online was this old-fashioned experience. When I figured that out, that's when I started writing the piece. For me, that's what it's about.
My own story was just a narrative vehicle. There has to be a level of drama. I was not as completely consumed; I wasn't not eating or sleeping the way I conveyed it in that piece. I do think there has to be a level of frenzy for that piece to work. But that's what that piece was about. And people always remember that one. I wrote it in 1996, before Internet dating really took off.
Dave: I would imagine that your readers often imagine they know you better than they do. More than is generally the case with other writers.
Daum: We live in a very literal society. People are so saturated with memoir that when you get something that's trying to walk and chew gum at the same time, readers often don't understand.
Particularly with the essays, I get a lot of "How can you say that?" I wrote a total stand-up riff about how much I hate carpet ["Carpet is Mungers"], which is clearly standing for something else. It's meant to be taken on another level, which I thought was pretty clear, but people will ask, "How can you say that about carpet? What's wrong with you?"
What's fun about writing is that you're using humor and character and language to sometimes mean the opposite of what you're literally saying. That's the basic edict of humor and satire and irony, in many ways, and I think much of the reading public has lost its ability to discern that. The woman who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran talks about this. She's teaching these works of literature to Iranian women. They slowly start to understand that Nabokov intended Lolita to be something totally different than the advocation of pedophilia. But then a lot of Americans don't realize that, either.
Dave: What about your reading. Have you been enjoying anything in particular lately?
Daum: I've been all over the place lately. I love Philip Roth. The Human Stain is one of my favorite books. I'm interested these days in how comedy or satire can be used. I'm reading a lot of Alain de Botton right now. I really like him. But I'm kind of just jumping around.
Dave: Is there a Nebraska novel that's had a special influence?
Daum: Song of the Lark is my favorite Willa Cather novel. I came to her kind of late. In New Jersey, we're not raised on Cather the way Nebraskans are, so in Nebraska, they're always shocked when I say that. Cather is like Dickens to them. Song of the Lark I really like, but that's sort of a New York story. It's about somebody who leaves Nebraska.
Meghan Daum visited Powell's City of Books on June 9, 2003. Before we began the formal interview, she admitted to surfing certain online book sites to read customer comments about her favorite titles. "It's a great thing to do when you're feeling down," she explained, "to look at books that you respect and see what nasty things people have written about them." I asked, "Have you been down much lately, Meghan? Is this something we need to talk about?" "No!" Ms. Daum insisted. "I'm up! I've never been so up." And thus the interview began.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State