The Patricia Marx interview

September 2, 2011

Hey! If you want to see someone ask me questions, they selected me as the Crush of the Month over at the Sun-Times. Of course I got a short month.

Today’s interviewee has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1989, writing the very funny shopping pieces. The first woman elected to The Harvard Lampoon, she has written for film and TV (including Saturday Night Live and Rugrats) and is the author of several humor and children’s books. Most recently she’s the author of the novel Starting From Happy, which is “made up of hundreds of chaplettes, clever illustrations, and darkly funny commentary on getting together and staying the course.” (None other than Woody Allen blurbed it.) 

Tell me about the Starting From Happy book cover. Was it your concept?
I like to think I invented the color blue, but other than that, the terrific designers at Scribner did it all by themselves.

Do you know what your next big project will be? Or is the current project promoting the new book?
Everything’s a big project for me, even getting up in the morning.  As for work, I have lots of next big projects. That’s why I’m a nervous wreck. For instance, I’m finishing up a one-act musical and I have plans to write another novel and also a humor book.

Do you think you’ll return to humor or children’s book writing in the future?
For sure, especially if my answer above can be trusted. I love writing children’s books, so I hope I haven’t written my last. Depends on when I die, I guess.

Which of the books that you’ve published took (or felt like it took) the most work?
They get progressively harder because my skills for self-criticism are ever-improving.

I read in another interview that you love coming up with fictional names. What are some of your favorite names you’ve invented that you’ve either used in writing or have yet to see the light of day?
I know I have some great ones, but I forget what they are.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve read lately, long or short?
I’m liking Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, but that doesn’t mean I know how to spell his last name.

I’ve come to think of you as the shopping writer for the magazine. How did you come to secure that position? How did it begin?
The shopping column, On and Off the Avenue, has been in the magazine since its first issue. In the ten or so years previous to my writing it, it had been discontinued, I guess because they couldn’t find writers shallow enough. Then, I came along. I don’t really know so much about shopping, but I like stuff and I’m not too bad at walking around.

The shopping pieces you write for the New Yorker are incredibly fun to read but seem like they’re secretly a lot of work, especially in terms of fact-checking. On your end, what’s the most onerous part of working on those pieces?
Walking around in cold weather is painfully awful. The hardest piece to fact-check was the one I wrote about Shanghai because so much commerce there is illicit. When the factchecker called many of the stores I covered, she was told that there was no store on the premises.

What are some of your favorite souvenirs from these excursions?
I have some great dresses and eyeglasses from Shanghai, a hat from Texas, and really great pin-striped jeans from my back to school shopping piece.

Would you say you’re fun to shop with? Who are your favorite shopping companions?
Fun to shop with? I’m not fun period. My favorite person to shop with is Phoebe Cates, who, by the way, owns a fantastic store, Blue Tree (on 92nd and Madison Avenue). She has the best, best, best eye—and she’s a blast.

What are some of your least-favorite fashion trends right now?
Next question.

You’ll be teaching screenwriting at Princeton this fall. What do you think will be the easiest lessons to impart, and which will be the bigger challenges?
Ask me in December.

How do you plan on refraining from making the Princeton students feel bad for not attending Harvard?
I plan to grade them according to how much they like me. That is not an answer to your question, but I felt like telling you that.

How much does your mother read what you write? Does she give you a lot of input? Has she influenced your writing at all?
My mother reads everything I write, and after it’s published, she often points out grammar mistakes I have made. She is a very honest critic, for better or worse, but mostly better.

Which SNL sketches did you write that were your personal favorites?
The only one I can remember is a parody of a breast self-exam. I wrote it with Doug McGrath, now a wonderful film director.

It doesn’t seem like you’re on Facebook or Twitter. If that’s correct, what’s kept you away from social networking?
I just joined Twitter! What’s kept me away from social networking is that I’m very good at coming up with ways to waste time and am reluctant to sign up for more ways.

I know you’re friends with your colleagues Susan Orlean, Nancy Franklin and Roz Chast. Do the gals at the New Yorker tend to stick together on principle or it’s just lucky that you like your colleagues?
I think I might have been friends with those three before I wrote for the New Yorker. Besides, who wouldn’t love Susan, Nancy, and Roz?

Who (or whose writing) makes you laugh most consistently?
Steve Martin, Dmitri Martin, but not Dean Martin.

How does it feel to be the 292nd person interviewed for Zulkey.com (and now WBEZ)?
I feel like the first.