Mary Elizabeth Williams writes for Salon and has appeared in the pages of The New York Times and The Nation. As part of our “10 Questions With…” series, we talked to Ms. Williams about New Jersey Catholics, cynicism v. optimism, bacon chocolate, and “smart tabloids.”
The Daily Banter: First off, the softball question: why be a writer?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: Well, for starters I have no upper body strength so a lot of other occupations wouldn’t have worked out well. And I often think about when I was starting out as an intern at a magazine and a fellow peon one day shot a look over at the editor’s desk and said, “She gets paid to think.” I knew for sure that moment that’s what I wanted. That’s an incredible privilege. That’s a dream come true.
The Daily Banter: For your entry in Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, you wrote, “Catholic girl. Jersey. It’s all true.” Now my dad is from northern New Jersey too and I went to a Jesuit college, so I think I get what you mean, but I’d like to know which you think had the greater impact on you, being from New Jersey or being raised Catholic?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: I can’t imagine one without the other. I wear both with incredible pride. They instilled in me a toughness and a sense of humor that have been indispensible. And I feel like wherever I go in life, I can look at a situation and say, “You think that’s weird? Trust me, I’ve seen weird.”
The Daily Banter: On your website you have Mary Elizabeth’s Law, which states, “There are two kinds of food — those that can be improved with bacon, and those that can be improved with chocolate,” and you have Mary Elizabeth’s Paradox, which says, “And yet, bacon and chocolate do not mix.” Have you really never heard of the wonder that is the bacon chocolate bar?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: I have experienced it. I have one in my fridge right now. It is delicious. But I definitely think bacon and chocolate should be left only in the hands of very skilled professionals.
The Daily Banter: More importantly, on your site you claim that “like most people,” you are both “deeply cynical,” yet “secretly optimistic.” Do you consider one a “how you live your day to day” and one more of a “greater world view” kind of thing or is there more of a yin and yang balance?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: I carry both around with me all the time, but I know the optimism takes more work and is therefore more precious. It’s very very easy to get cynical, especially in this business. To believe that good things are out there and that there are reasons to hope — you’ve got to put in the effort. Snark gets very lazy and very boring very fast.
The Daily Banter: To get a little unprofessionally personal, my girlfriend’s mother was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer and is currently mid chemo and radiation treatment, and obviously it’s been hard on everyone. Now your experience with cancer is well documented on Salon, but what would you say to a family who is knee-dip in it right now?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: I’m so sorry your girlfriend’s family is experiencing this. Cancer sucks. My number one piece of advice, because I could go on all day on this subject, would be to know that cancer is a group experience and that everyone in its path — not just the patient — needs and deserves support and care. Ask for it, accept it. The people in your extended circle can be incredibly kind and generous, if you let them.
The Daily Banter: And just to get a bit more advice out of you… Your book Gimme Shelter was about trying to find a home back in 2003, and during an interview you noted how “built to fail” the system had become, stressing that educating yourself on all the financial aspects involved was the one thing that helped you survive the process. Almost 10 years later, do you have any fresh advice for a new generation of first-home buyers?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: Don’t get swept up. Don’t be in a rush. I think there can still be a real feeling of frenzy when you see a place you like and know there’s competition for it. This is not a vintage clock radio on eBay. This is your home. If this one feels wrong or it’s more than you budgeted for, walk away. The right one is out there and it will happen, I promise.
The Daily Banter: We at The Daily Banter, more specifically Chez, aren’t hesitant to poke the Salon bear and have taken you all to task for a slew of issues, and I know we are obviously not the only ones. Do you ever come across one of those criticisms of Salon and go, “Ugh yeah, that’s probably accurate.”?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: The word “salon” itself implies a variety of views. I don’t think it should be shocking that there isn’t one lock step perspective. We frequently run pieces that oppose each other — I wrote one this week that was in sharp contrast to another staffer’s — and I think that’s healthy. So I don’t think, “Ugh,” when someone on the outside is critical, because I believe differences of opinion are good.
I don’t expect everybody to agree with everything I write, let alone everything an entire publication runs, all the time. I used to have a friend at another publication, who became furious with me when I wrote a pretty mildly critical piece about something that had happened there. Has not spoken to me since. That, I do not get. The media echo chamber of mutual applause cuts off the oxygen to the brain. I would much rather bicker with Chez, any day of the week. By the way, whatever it is, he’s wrong.
The only time criticism bothers me is when it’s done inaccurately, and someone mischaracterizes something somebody’s done. Or when it’s just mean for the sake of meanness.
The Daily Banter: Speaking of Chez, he would like me to ask: “Do you and the rest of the Salon writers get a list each morning from Salon HQ of the slights and alleged injustices they’re supposed to be outraged over?”
Mary Elizabeth Williams: God, my life would be so much easier if we did. Sadly, no, I have to wake up and find things to be outraged about all by myself. Fortunately, when you write a lot about racism, sexism, and homophobia, it’s not hard.
The Daily Banter: In all seriousness though, Salon’s former editor-in-chief David Talbot once said called Salon, “a smart tabloid,” clarifying that “you’re trying to reach a popular audience, trying to write topics that are viscerally important to a readership.” If journalism is a struggle of trying to suck a reader in while also educating them, what responsibility do you think outlets have in terms of catering their content to readers and what responsibility do readers have in terms of sifting through the GIF-lists of the world and searching out worthwhile content?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: Everybody knows now that it’s easy to make a listicle or write a “You won’t believe” headline. I look at those things too. They’re entertaining. They have their place. What I’ve always loved about Talbot’s vision was the idea that news doesn’t have to be medicinal. When I look at the topics that are burning up in popular culture, I see a mirror of how we as a culture are talking about things like class or feminism. They’re important. I think the challenge is to balance the easy to digest stuff with other work that asks deeper questions and investigates answers. Aggregation is not journalism.
The Daily Banter: Gawker once called you “irksome,” which is such a unique disparaging word. What’s the best/oddest/most ridiculous insult you’ve had thrown your way that didn’t originate from a comment section or Reddit user?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: The National Review once called me Salon’s “waspily named women’s grievance columnist.” I genuinely loved that. I considered getting business cards that said that. Chez has called me “the textbook definition of a New York-centric postmodern feminist,” which is a pretty good runner-up.
The Daily Banter: If the world is completely screwed past the point of no return, what do you think was or will be the nail in the coffin?
Mary Elizabeth Williams: Well, like I’ve said, optimism takes more work, so if I ever believe the world is screwed past the point of no return, I’ll have lost the fight against cynicism. And on the days when I do start veering toward feeling like the last nail is driving into the coffin, I usually just watch videos of otter pups till the sensation passes.