the Same: Tell me about your journey to becoming a writer. Over three decades at The New Yorker! How did you decide to write “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen?”
Mary Norris: I have wanted to be a writer since I first learned to read. I came to the New Yorker hoping to write for Talk of the Town and soon learned that being on the editorial staff did not automatically translate into writing for the magazine. I published maybe two Talk stories under William Shawn, and had better luck while Robert Gottlieb was editor-in-chief and Charles (Chip) McGrath was editing Talk. In my experience, publishing is largely a matter of personal relationships, and Chip liked my writing. In 2012, when I had been hoping for a big break for more than thirty years, two young women who worked on the New Yorker Web site, Eleanor Martin and Sasha Weiss, asked me to write a response to a piece on the New York Times Web site in which a writer named Ben Yagoda made fun of our commas. [This is in the book, pp. 101-103] That post, In Defense of Nutty Commas, led to my writing a book about grammar and usage. I would not have done it otherwise. To think, commas was my big subject!
tS: A question we always like to ask in our interviews is especially interesting for me to ask you, after reading about how you worked your way up from humble beginnings at the New Yorker. Have you ever had to struggle, as a woman, for your voice to be heard?
MN: I have had to struggle physically, as a person, for my voice to be heard. My voice always had a strained quality, and to be heard I had to strain even more. I was using muscles that had nothing to do with producing the human voice. Only in my fifties did I begin a course of work with a voice therapist (note: not a speech therapist) and learn how to make the most of my frail vocal apparatus.
I know that’s not what you mean by having a voice. A good copy editor is invisible as well as inaudible. It felt like a struggle to get published, but I never felt that the struggle was due to my being female. Maybe I had some deep feeling that women should not be too pushy, but I am not a pushy type. I am, however, persistent, and it paid off. When my blog posts began to attract attention, and the book was coming out, I agreed to make a series of videos for the New Yorker, under the title Comma Queen, and that is when I was surprised to find that my physical voice and my writer’s voice and my opinions were all being heard. It was a surprise after thirty-odd years of being in the background.
tS: I recently subscribed to the New Yorker and have been reading it regularly for the first time. I’m really loving it. What is your favorite section of the magazine to read? What was your favorite part of the job?
MN: I retired from the New Yorker in February, 2017, so I am now a reader, too, and, like other readers, I look at the cartoons first. I have favorite writers: (John McPhee, Nick Paumgarten, Janet Malcolm, Roger Angell, George Saunders, Raffi Khatchadourian, John Seabrook, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Ben McGrath, to name a few. I prefer pieces that are not necessarily linked to the news (I’m especially tired of political coverage). Fiction was always fun to work on. Talk stories were gratifying because one could improve them substantially over the course of a few drafts.
tS: What was an early experience where you learned that language has power?
MN: When I was in first grade and had to write something about my family, I described my mother’s routine, writing that she got a “permanent” every Friday. This made my father laugh. It was not easy to make my father laugh, so I knew I was onto something.
tS: What female authors have influenced you?
MN: Janet Malcolm, for the scrupulousness with which she examines her own response to her subjects; Virginia Woolf (though intellectually she is way beyond me); I read Sylvia Plath in college (what not to do!); Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” was an important book for me. I can’t think of anyone who influenced my style, though, and I have not liked any of the comparisons!
tS: Tell us about “Between You & Me”
MN: See No. 1 (above). “Between You & Me” grew out of blog posts I did for the New Yorker on punctuation and pencils. The original one was on commas. I also wrote about semicolons, the diaeresis (the two dots over the second “e” in reëlect, for instance), and profanity, and on pencils. All these subjects were expanded for the book, for which I also wrote about my mentors at the New Yorker. It is not exactly a memoir—there are enough New Yorker memoirs without my adding one to the pile. I discovered that to make points about spelling or hyphens, I needed to create scenes, which meant introducing characters. So the gallery of eccentrics at the New Yorker furnished me with some illustrative material. I like to think my book gave some of them an afterlife.
tS: What was the process of writing “Between You & Me” like?
MN: It was difficult, because writing is difficult, but I was lucky in that I had a genius of an editor—Matt Weiland at W. W. Norton. I gave Matt some very rough material, and he gave it back to me, sometimes suggesting underlining a single thematic sentence to build a revision around. The idea was to generate a lot of material, and then get a balance between instruction and narrative, using stories from the New Yorker and from my life. I was never sure what was a good story and what was not—Matt was the judge of that. You know that famous image attributed to Hemingway, about the finished book being only the tip of the iceberg? I thought that was original with me. I had to digest a lot of material that didn’t make it into the book in order to find what would go into the book. What a joy to get back an edited chapter and see how everything in it spoke to the point. And I liked the voice: it was my voice, made crystalline—the tip of the iceberg.
tS: What has been the most surprising/interesting/challenging thing about releasing your book?
MN: I’ve been surprised and gratified at the different kinds of people who are interested in grammar and usage and clarity. Copy editors, of course (who are delightful and generous), but also teachers, writers, translators, indexers, students, job hunters, sticklers. One woman told me I had a huge following among divorce lawyers!
tS: What are you working on next?
MN: I’m writing a book about Greek—the language, travel, mythology, mosaics. The writing is difficult, of course (see above, No. 7), but what a privilege to be writing about Greek and Greece.
tS: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
MN: Just this: If you are a writer and you want to get your work published, never give up. I was sixty-two before I got my big break. So never give up. Never, never, never, never, never give up.