10 Questions with Timothy Noah

In the fall of 2005, PublicAffairs published THE WOMAN AT THE WASHINGTON ZOO, a collection of the journalism of Marjorie Williams, a Washington journalist who had died of cancer in January of that same year.

Timothy Noah, her husband and a senior writer at the online journal Slate, selected and edited the essays for this book. Carla Cohen talked to Noah about the life and work of Marjorie Williams.

CC: When I read this book I felt like I had a new friend in Marjorie Williams. I had read many of the pieces over the years, but when they are assembled in one place, and you read them at more or less the same time, you see the journalist at least as clearly as the subjects. She must have been uncommonly smart and clear-eyed to write such perceptive pieces.

TN: A number of journalists I know, people who admired Marjorie and read her pieces when they came out, said that only now, on rereading them, did they see how well-crafted they were, and how much they expressed the sensibility of the writer. In Washington, information tends to be skimmed—especially political information. So I think the strong literary and personal quality of her work wasn't fully appreciated until it was put between hard covers. I've heard many people marvel at the intimate quality of Marjorie's writing, even when she was writing on impersonal topics.

CC: This book has been an unexpected success. Public Affairs had to print more copies and the book is being purchased throughout the country, not simply in Washington. Collected nonfiction essays are generally a hard sell. Why do you think The Woman at the Washington Zoo fared so well?

TN: Partly, I think, it reflects baby boomers' newfound interest in the topic of mortality. It's been widely noted that 2006 is the year the first baby boomers will turn 60. Much of Marjorie's book is about the liver cancer that killed her. Marjorie writes about her illness, consciously, from the perspective of a cancer patient who wants to explain to a healthy person, as concretely as possible, what it feels like to be dying. I think the success of Joan Didion's new book, The Year of Magical Thinking—whose sales apparently surpass anything Didion wrote previously—also reflects baby boomers' interest in death (in this instance from the perspective of one who is grieving). Carole Radziwill's book, What Remains—which I haven't read—is another book about grief that's been selling very well.

But that only partly explains the book's success, and it's a fairly reductive explanation. I think readers are responding powerfully to Marjorie's voice—to the vividness and the strong appeal of Marjorie's personality. In the book's introduction, I invite readers to experience "the intense pleasure of her company." Marjorie was a very compelling person, and people enjoyed being around her (unless, of course, she happened to be profiling them). To a great extent, that aspect of her personality came through in her writing, too.

CC: I don’t understand the relationship between Marjorie and the woman in the Randall Jarrell poem that gives the book its title. To me she seems as utterly different from the Jarrell poem as anybody could be.

TN: Yes, she is quite different. In the book's introduction, I apologize for subverting Jarrell's meaning. The woman in Jarrell's poem is defeated, dehumanized, de-sexed; all color has been drained from her. Marjorie was nothing like that; her plumage couldn't have been more vivid. It was, however, convenient for me to borrow the notion of a woman at a zoo, observing the animals. In my construct, the woman is Marjorie, and the animals are the various social types in Washington—"The Pragmatist," "The Philanthropist," "The Hack," etc., which are all chapter titles in the book's first section. This has absolutely nothing to do with Jarrell's use of these same elements.

My construct breaks down after the book's first section, but so does the awkwardness of the book's relationship to the poem. In parts two and three, the book's title gradually becomes more faithful to Jarrell's meaning. Jarrell's poem is, after all, written in the oppressed woman's voice; it's a hair-raising cry of protest against the loss of vitality and autonomy. As Marjorie delves deeper into her own story, we hear a similar cry. We see Marjorie's anguish over her mother's loss of vitality in "The Alchemist," and, in the book's final section, we see Marjorie struggle to maintain her own vitality as her body is failing her. The poem's final lines are, "You know what I was,/ You see what I am: change me, change me!" In this she is both successful and not. As her illness progresses, Marjorie maintains her clear-eyed perspective, and remains alive to life's possibilities. At the same time, she reconciles herself to the inevitability of her death.

I'll grant you it's not a perfect fit, and there's a limit to my willingness to see my wife's death in literary terms at all. In part, I'm just trying to follow her own lead. Marjorie herself made use of the Jarrell poem in her tribute to the late journalist Mary McGrory (which appears at the end of the book's second section). Marjorie absolutely adored Jarrell. She was especially fond of his comic novel, Pictures From An Institution.

CC: It would seem that Marjorie found a great subject in Washington and its characters. Can you talk about Marjorie’s feelings about her city?

TN: She liked Washington quite a lot; much preferred it, for instance, to New York, which she moved from in the mid-1980s. She liked its smaller scale. I guess it felt to her like a half-step back toward Princeton, which is where she grew up, though she never put it quite that way. I was paging through one of Marjorie's childhood journals not long ago and, in a passage about visiting Washington in early 1973 to protest the Vietnam war with her father, she wrote about how beautiful she thought it was and said that she'd like to live here someday. I'm sure she'd completely forgotten writing that by the time she actually did move here, but maybe some of the underlying feeling lingered.

Marjorie explains her feelings toward Washington at the end of "Flying to L.A.," a chapter in the book's second section. There was much in the place that she found conventional and conservative, but she liked to write about the contrast between Washington's constricted code of behavior and what she called "the messy human stuff" that everyone pretended wasn't there.

CC: Will you tell us about how you selected the pieces that you included? I particularly loved the profiles. Are there some that you left out?

TN: I left quite a bit out. In my first cut, I found that I had to limit Marjorie's many superb profiles of powerful and ambitious white males—especially powerful and ambitious white Republican males—because after you read two or three, one after the other, they started to sound alike. The blame, I think, lies not with Marjorie but with the white males themselves. The profiles included in Zoo are very deliberately diverse, not out of some politically-correct impulse so much as the need to emphasize variety within the Washington bestiary—perhaps a bit more variety, in truth, than exists in the real Washington.

I also left out profiles of people who were not obvious Washington types. Michael Lewis, about whom Marjorie wrote a riveting profile in Vanity Fair, didn't strike me as properly classifiable as a Washington type even though he actually had lived in Washington when the story was first published. Ditto, Larry King. Others, like Anna Quindlan and Patricia Duff, weren't living in Washington when Marjorie profiled them for Vanity Fair, so they didn't really fit.

Even with this template for exclusion, the original manuscript of Zoo was about twice as long as the book that was finally published. I was particularly distressed to cut Marjorie's Washington Post profile of Clark Clifford, which many people remember as her best, from the book. It was just too long. The good news is that the strong success of Zoo probably makes it inevitable that I will publish a follow-up volume. When I do, Clifford will definitely be included.

CC: I also thought that many of the articles seemed fresh and relevant even after as many as 15 years. Did you have that in mind as you chose the articles?

TN: To my mind, the pieces never stopped being fresh and relevant because they read like short fiction. The key, for me, was to choose pieces not on the basis of how important the profile subject was, but on the basis of how well Marjorie conveyed that person's psychology, and what the person's story showed about the sort of place Washington ever shall remain. Some people, I'll grant you, were so boring that I couldn't even bring myself to reread Marjorie's profiles of them, much less include their profiles in the book. Sam Skinner, who was chief of staff to Bush 41, is an example. I figured that if I barely remembered that Marjorie had profiled Skinner, then it couldn't have been one for the ages. Maybe 20 years from now I'll take another look and discover I made a terrible mistake.

CC: I don’t know many of the people that are featured in Marjorie’s journalism, but I know Vernon Jordan a little. Marjorie captures Vernon Jordon brilliantly – I could not believe she did that piece 15 years ago. What did he think of it?

TN: I don't think he much liked it, though I don't recall the details; I heard about it third-hand. That one was a little awkward for me because at the time Marjorie wrote it Jordan sat on the board of directors of Dow Jones, which owned the Wall Street Journal, for which I worked (I don't work there anymore; now I work for Slate, which is owned by the Washington Post Co.). Marjorie and I had sat with Jordan and his wife at a Journal function not long before she wrote the piece. Of course, that's one of the themes of Marjorie's profile—Jordan's sheer ubiquity, which tends to silence anyone who wants to write about his troubling transformation from civil rights leader to corporate fat cat.

Jordan is among the most charming people I've ever met. Marjorie was, among other things, a great connoisseur of charm and its uses; she studied at the feet of a master (her father), as she explains in the book. She puts this talent to great use in the Jordan chapter.

CC: Marjorie clearly had a novelist’s eye for character. Nowhere is this more evident than in her remarkable dissection of her parents. It’s an extraordinary essay. Some of the lines are so memorable. About her mother: “You could eat at her table every night and never taste the thing that you were really hungry for.” Did she think about writing a novel?

TN: Yes. She started one, and left behind some fiction-writing exercises, but she'd only made a few baby steps in that direction when she died. I have no doubt that eventually Marjorie would have written some very good fiction. At the same time, I think the quality of Marjorie's best writing demonstrates that the best nonfiction makes as strong a literary claim as the best fiction. I think "The Alchemist," which is the essay you refer to, is the best thing Marjorie ever wrote. There's certainly more of Marjorie in it than there was in anything else she put to paper.

CC: Finally, I had the feeling that most of the pieces in this book could only have been written by a woman. They represent a woman’s eye and sensibility. Of course, she also writes about “women’s issues,” but I just felt the power of her women’s voice throughout. Do you feel that way?

TN: Yes. Jennifer Senior, in a wonderfully perceptive review in the New York Times Book Review, made the same point, but with some trepidation, as though she worried such a judgment might appear to diminish Marjorie's work. I don't think it diminishes Marjorie at all to say that she was a very distinctively female writer. That was a term of praise Marjorie herself often used to describe other people's work. Of course she thought much of the stuff peddled as "chick lit" was hackwork. But many of the women writers Marjorie most admired—Anne Tyler, say, or Penelope Fitzgerald—she admired specifically for their skill at conveying a woman's sensibility. Marjorie would be proud to be thought so herself. Which, of course, doesn't mean her book is just for women. If it were, I promise you, I'd have lost interest before completing its assembly. It's just a wonderful book. I can say that, you know, because I didn't write it!

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