Mine seems to be shelter magazines, the industry word for magazines focused on interior design. Stacks of them fill baskets, bookshelves and bags around our apartment, and I part with them reluctantly, only because there’s no room.
I grew up, ages 8 to 16, in boarding school and summer camp, which I’m sure has something to do with this. Boarding school meant sharing a room with at least 3 or 4 others, sleeping in a twin metal bed with an institutional chenille or cotton bedspread. Summer camp meant sharing with 3 or 4 others and sleeping in a wooden bunk-bed, its only “decoration” the graffiti of earlier residents on the raw wood.
So beauty, comfort, style and elegance matter a great deal to me.
I’m able to keep my wallet snapped shut and stay off of most on-line shopping sites, but…but…oooohh, I do love a gorgeous fabric and have splurged multiple times ordering fabric-by-the-yard and having it made into custom throw pillows or curtains.
I had our old Crate & Barrel sofa refreshed with new bold piping on the seat cushions and had these throw pillows custom-made. Adding piping or welting always makes it look more finished.
Because Jose and I so enjoy entertaining, it’s nice to open the door and feel completely at ease that our guests will enjoy a pretty, comfortable environment.
I also studied interior design seriously in the mid-1990s at the New York School of Interior Design, planning to ditch journalism and change careers. But my husband bailed and I couldn’t afford to work for $10/hour to start at the bottom. I loved my classes and now really appreciate what training and skill it takes to create a spectacular space.
My parents each had terrific taste, collecting art and antiques. My father had a gorgeous Knole sofa I still remember decades later. My mother brought home lovely mirrored textiles from India and pale mantas from Peru.
And my maternal grandmother inherited a pile of money and hired Toronto’s best interior designer to furnish her apartment and, later, carriage house. I still remember a spectacular orange wallpaper from her powder room.
Our living room curtains, lined, custom-made maybe a decade ago. Lots of colors to work from in here; that pale yellow-green (Farrow & Ball’s Gervase Yellow) is one of them.
So I happily spend hours paging through other people’s homes, whether a villa in Tuscany, a cottage in Muskoka, Ontario or a 17th. century pile in some bit of rural England. I’m not especially drawn to opulence, and much prefer simplicity, like 18th century Swedish designs or the work of Axel Vervoordt.
I love The English Home, as much for its amazing early houses — some 400 or 500 years old — as the distinctly British sense of color and design. All those tall, tall windows, lined chintz curtains and dressing tables.
On my last visit to London, my pal Cadence, author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — who knows my love of textiles — took me to the Cloth Shop, a legendary London store that supplied fabrics and ribbons to the costume-makers of the Harry Potter films. I bought a lovely teal fabric that now covers our bed headboard.
Two Farrow & Ball colors; French Gray and Peignoir (the lavender one). The drawers were custom-built into a former closet and this is the corner of our small dining room.
And, because I am a complete Farrow & Ball fangirl, I traveled 2.5. hours one-way by train and taxi in July 2017 to visit their paint and wallpaper factory in Dorset and meet one of their two heads of color, Charlie Cosby; here’s an interview with her and some explanations of their quirky paint color names, like Dead Salmon, Clunch and Elephant’s Breath.
Here are a few of my favorite go-to design retailers: Wisteria, Ballard Designs, Jayson Home, Anthropologie, Mothology, Dash & Albert, Serena & Lily.
Tools of the trade! An auction catalogue and bidding paddle
By Caitlin Kelly
Isn’t that something only rich people do? Billionaires in salerooms like Christie’s and Sotheby’s (pronounced Suth-uh-bees with a soft, slurred th) flicking an eyelid to denote their multi-zero bid?
But buying original art — even a numbered print, (lithograph, engraving, etching, silkscreen, monoprint, linocut) — can feel intimidating until you learn the lingo.
My father is a documentary film-maker but also a talented artist working in a range of media, including oils, lithograph, engraving and even silver. He’s collected art — from a Picasso litho to a Renoir engraving, (both of which I’ve spotted in Swann catalogues), to Inuit soapstone sculpture to 19th century Japanese prints.
I was very lucky to grow up with such eclectic beauty on our walls, and it absolutely informed how I see and what I enjoy. It also showed me that owning art is a lovely decision. You can go through a few sofas in your lifetime, but art you love is something to keep for years.
In my 20s, thanks to an inheritance, I bought a large silkscreen print, photos by Jerry Uelsmann, Andre Kertesz and Steichen and three colored pencil sketches. I did, I admit, make a calculated decision about the photos, and sold the Kertesz later at Swann.
The saleroom at Swann Galleries in Manhattan. The works are all on display for preview and you can ask to examine them closely without covers before you bid to know what their condition is and how much it might cost to restore.
If you’re on Etsy or Instagram, you’ll find many artists selling their work, some of it very affordable. Generally, it’s wise to frame paper artwork carefully with acid-free matt and UV-protective glass and photos, especially, need to displayed out of direct sunlight.
But why buy art?
Good heavens, why not?
If you can afford $500 or $1,200 for a new cellphone or computer you can acquire art at that price.
Hanging on our bedroom wall is a gorgeous litho I got at Swann for $600 by Maurice Vlaminck, from the 1920s. Over our bed now hangs an etching by Raoul Dufy, from the same auction, for which I paid a bit more.
I read the catalogue carefully, decided which ones I wanted and decided what my budget was — the auction house always adds a “buyer’s premium” of 25 percent, sometimes less. I registered, got my paddle (which you raise to show you’re bidding on that item), and waited for hours til “my” pieces came up. There are hundreds of items in an auction, and its rhythm is carefully planned. There’s always an estimate given weeks in advance, which can go low or blast far above projections.
But you can also buy art at antique stores, galleries, graduating student shows at local art colleges, street fairs.
I love the explosive style, brilliant colors and Canadian landscapes of this artist, Julia Veenstra, who I found and follow on Instagram.
A splurge — $1,500 — was for an image I stumbled across at the Winter Antiques Show, a very fancy New York City affair I usually just attend to savor museum-quality material I could never afford. But…oh my…there was a photo exhibitor from California selling images by a man I had never heard of that stopped me in my tracks.
One of the many reasons I enjoy living near New York City is having quick and easy access to its culture, whether music, dance, art, books, theater.
We’re fortunate my husband works for The New York Times, which is unionized, and as a result gives us access to TDF, which offers low-cost tickets to a range of entertainment; as I left the matinee of Choirboy, having paid $45 for a fantastic orchestra seat, I saw that the lowest price at the TKTS booth in Times Squares was $73.
It’s a real privilege to see a show for these prices — full price for an orchestra Broadway seat can be $300 or more.
First, if you don’t know much recent Irish history — specifically “The Troubles”, then acronyms mentioned in it like GPO and RUC won’t mean much. Plus thick Northern Irish accents to cut through.
Go anyway! It’s an amazing play, even if the ending is abrupt and confusing. It has more than 20 cast members — seven children, plus (!) a live rabbit, a live goose and a very calm live baby. It’s almost three hours, with two intermissions.
It opened in New York on Broadway in October 2018.
It’s set in an Irish farmhouse at harvest time, in 1981, and includes everyone from Aunt Maggie Far Away, fading in and out of dementia, to the foul-mouthed patriarch Patrick and his wife, Patricia. There’s a very bad guy named Mr. Muldoon, a betrayed and betraying priest, a bunch of rowdy cousins and plenty of whisky. The plot is too complicated to detail here, but here’s a review of it; the themes of loyalty, belonging, lost opportunity and betrayal playing throughout.
Hard to imagine a more different sort of play, but so terrific. It closes March 10, so if you have a chance, run!
The thing most of us crave, (certainly living in the U.S. where falling into or staying in poverty is terrifying), is financial security. No one wants to not be able to make rent, buy groceries, buy a bus pass or gas the car, clothe their kids or pay off those miserable student loans.
So many of us will lunge toward the first job that offers us a steady income because….steady income.
It’s the fortunate few who have the time, energy and fiscal freedom to slow down and decide to focus on what they really hope to creatively accomplish. When you work for others, you de facto work to their needs, budget and deadline.
People have told me I’m an artist…I think I’m more of a tailor. You want your trousers hemmed two inches (intellectually speaking)? I can do that. You want a navy gabardine suit size 42R? No problem. I know how to work quickly and efficiently and give people what they ask me for.
I’m no Phoebe Philo nor the late Karl Lagerfeld nor my favorite fashion designer, Belgian Dries van Noten. Occasionally, yes, I come up with a wholly creative idea and am able to sell it.
Jose recently had an idea that will literally make history. I am so proud of him! We can’t share what it is for a few months, but he realized that a specific annual event of great cultural importance had (?!) never before been documented visually. He knew its administrator and pitched the idea to her and he suggested a budget for it and she said yes.
He spent 31 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times, a place of prestige and power, and it gave him a source of challenge, steady income with a union-protected job and a pension. All good.
Very little creative freedom.
Those outside journalism may fantasize about its creativity but the wage slaves within it know better; too often the thinking is stale and the formulation of coverage cliche. Those who keep coming up with new and interesting and untried ideas — as Jose did many times — can be ignored, dismissed and just give up.
When he took the buyout they offered in 2015, I was scared. How would a guy with a desk for 31 years thrive as a full-time freelancer?
He has, because his creativity is finally being rewarded, both financially and professionally.
At an age when some people have retired and hung it up, he’s tootling along, impressing the hell out of new clients and, best of all, seeing the fruits of his labors.
I’d known of her talent through a mutual friend in my hometown, Toronto, and met Ali G-J for lunch on one of my visits. I admired her gorgeous watercolors and kept urging her to turn them into products. She did! Her pillows, scarves and totes are fun and charming. If you know a journalist, check out her “Joe the Reporter” image and the California Dreaming laptop skin. Prices start at $16 for a fab floral phone skin.
I rarely splurge on costume jewelry, but this London artist’s bold, outsize earrings and hairpins hand-cut from brass — some painted black, some cobalt blue — are gorgeous. (I chose the Gia earrings, 60 pounds, $77.
Guys, this brand combines several of my passions — swearing, birds, vintage art and Canadian bad-assery. Ottawa-based Aaron Reynolds decided to create a line of mugs, T-shirts/hoodies/baseball shirts, posters, pins and playing cards that combine gorgeous vintage images of birds with wickedly funny/furious sayings. Not surprisingly, his biggest audience is pissed-off American women. Great gifts for anyone whose head is perpetually about to explode. Pins $11, mugs $20, baseball shirts $30.
What is it with angry avians? This British brand creates exquisite wool and silk scarves, mufflers and pocket squares. Their color palette is bold and bright and their designs amazing. Perfect for stylish men and women of any age. Not cheap, but utterly distinctive. Women’s silk scarves start at 255 pounds ($331) to 290 pounds ($376) for large silk/wool combinations; silk pocket squares are 65 pounds ($84); love the ones marked FURY and LUST.
Smelly soap! I always order these, from my favorite Manhattan fragrance shop, Aedes de Venustas. They smell divine, $42 for three. I’ve loved Spain’s Maja soap since I was little; made since 1921, it comes in gorgeous black tissue paper, a box of three for $16.41
For all the feisty feminists in your life — the RBG Action Figure! Named for Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now 85 and still kicking judicial ass. $19.99
I’m mad for marbled papers, a glorious riot of color and pattern, and use them to cover books, to line a frame for a photo or print, lampshades, wrapping paper. This British woman’s work is beautiful: 8.80 pounds ($11.42) for a sheet of paper; 22 pounds ($28.56) for a gorgeous blue letter tray; 30 pounds ($38.95) for a vertical magazine holder; 14.50 pounds ($18.82) for five stunning bookmarks.
Regular readers know my love for all things vintage and vintage-looking. I’m a big fan of this website, with wicker, brass, ceramic, lanterns, candlesticks, trays, linens. Everything is well-priced, simple and lovely. Love this antiqued brass foliate key-holder, $29.
Here’s a fun practical present — combining two more of my loves: beer and a tidy kitchen! A tea towel identifying all the different kinds of beer. $20
I love the soft, soothing glow of candles and light them every day in our home. Love these, in the shape of pine cones, from Crate & Barrel. $12.95 to $16.95
I love using my Filofax, a leather-covered planner, with all sorts of cool inserts, from tiny Post-It notes to a well-used tiny ruler that measures in inches and centimeters. Mine is embossed red leather and a total pleasure to handle. They come in a rainbow of colors and two sizes; this one $101.
This handmade wooden box is large enough to store photos, recipes, love letters. Its feels vaguely Art Deco with its swirling colors. $295
Guacamole!! If you have seen it being made in front of you, you know it’s made in a specific heavy dish called a molcajete. Here’s one.$34.95
From much-beloved Opening Ceremony, a NYC retailer whose founders are now designing the line for Kenzo, I want these black lace boots!$325
Every year I include on this list a pretty duvet cover — and it has matching shams if you don’t own a duvet. This one, from Pottery Barn, is so beautiful, floral on a black background, and looks like embroidery. $60 (shams) to $249 (duvet cover.)
If you live somewhere really cold and want to be both stylish and warm, I love these huge wool scarves — they call them blankets as they’re large enough to really swathe your head and neck — from my favorite Canadian clothing retailer Aritzia. Some are named for Canadian places like Banff or Montreal. As a Canadian, I wear a lot of their clothes and appreciate their combination of style, quality, color and price. $78
A very quick primer on what makes a room really work, and what can kill even the best-laid plans.
One interior designer, the late legendary Albert Hadley, used to talk about skylines — think about a typical urban one; it has high and low points, spots of light and pools of darkness. It offers inherent drama and a bit of mystery.
The most attractive rooms have one as well.
Our dining room: Custom-made curtains. The wall color is Farrow & Ball Peignoir and the framed image is from a British design magazine.
Look around your rooms. Is everything the same size and shape? (i.e. all chunky rectangle or squares?) Does your eye stay only on the same level?
Is all your lighting (noooooo!) coming from an overhead source (noooooo!) without a dimmer to alter the mood? The ideal room is lit with at least four or five different sources, preferably for task work, reading, mood — a single glaring central ceiling fixture is harsh, unflattering and inefficient. Our living room has two matching tall lamps (symmetry helps!) that illuminate the sofa; a small lamp in a corner that lights up a photo on a wall and a lamp on a chest by the front door. No bulb offers less than 100 watts.
Scale is tricky — people often choose pieces that are too small for a space or too large. Or there’s just too much stuff in the space so you always feel a bit out of breath and annoyed but don’t know why.
Smaller pieces — like light, moveable side tables and stools — can be much more versatile and useful than the standard sofa/chairs/coffee table. We ditched two large club chairs and splurged on two square, low, deep green velvet stools, They offer comfortable and stylish seating without consuming nearly as much space.
Since re-arranged, a glimpse of our living room — looking a bit cluttered! Found the antique mirror in a Quebec antique shop and the small wooden table at a Connecticut consignment shop. Wall color is Gervase Yellow by Farrow & Ball.
The most interesting rooms have a range of different textures: suede, leather, chenille, velvet, silk, cotton. Smooth glass and rough stone. Gleaming brass or lucite.
Color can be challenging to get right, and I’ve blogged on this many times before.
Learn which colors work best with one another, and why. For example, a room combining red and green doesn’t have to look like a Christmas stocking if the red is a soft rusty-burgundy and the green a pale sage (the colors of our sofa and trim) — and it works because these colors are opposite on the color wheel.
Design magazines, books and websites offer a lot of great tips and inspiration, from Apartment Therapy to Insta accounts belonging to designers.
Making a home beautiful isn’t always quick, easy or cheap. It can take longer to afford and assemble the look you want most, but it’s worth it. I saved up for years to buy my Tizio lamp — it cost $500 in the 1980s — but I still use it today and still love it.
I’ve never regretted investing in the beauty, efficiency and comfort of our home.
As someone who studied interior design and spends far too many hours on Instagram and reading shelter magazines for inspiration, I love nothing more than a good zhuzh — making something more attractive.
As winter’s short, gray cold days descend on those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, here are some of the recent things we’ve done to feather our nest, a kid-free, pet-free one bedroom apartment of about 1,000 square feet. We’re both full-time freelance now, so this is also a place we do a lot of writing and editing work as well.
Sanding, spackling and painting all cracks in the walls
So boring! So annoying! So damn necessary. It’s either us and our own sweat equity or shelling out even more money — again — to a company to do it for us. There will still be some bad ceiling cracks and we’ll pay someone to deal with those. For reasons I do not understand, this 60-year-old building still (!?) settles and creates these damn cracks.
A fresh coat of paint on the dingiest spots
The cheapest way to clean and brighten your space. I’m a huge Farrow & Ball fan, and one of the many things I love about them is that they will custom make their discontinued colors, like the yellow-green we used in 2008 for the living room and hallway. Our dining room is painted in Peignoir, and our bedroom in Skimming Stone.
Steam-clean major upholstered pieces
Seriously! We spent $180 recently to have our seven-foot-long velvet-covered sofa and two cream-colored wing chairs professionally cleaned (in home.) It’s well worth it given how much we use these pieces.
Invest in a few good rugs
Nothing is cheerier than a few great rugs on a clean, shiny hardwood floor, adding color, warmth and texture. So many great choices out there, from flat-weave dhurries (a favorite) to bright, cheerful cotton ones (like these from Dash & Albert, whose stuff I keep buying.) Avoid harsh, bright colors and crazy wild designs as you’ll soon grow sick of them.
Throws for bed and living room lead to much happy napping
Is there anything nicer than a snooze under a soft, comforting throw? We have several, in cotton and wool, and they’re very well-used. These, in waffle-weave wool, come in gray and cream. Classic,
Are your light bulbs/shades clean and bright?
Everything gets dusty!
Stock up on flowers, plants and greenery
A room without a plant or fresh flowers — especially on gray, cold, rainy days — can feel static and lifeless.
Get out the polish!
I know, I know — very few people even want to own silver, or silver-plate or brass now, but few things are as lovely as freshly-polished cutlery, (ours is all flea market) or gleaming brass candlesticks.
Lots of candles
Obviously not a great choice, perhaps, if you have cats or small children, but we have neither. I keep a small votive candle bedside and light it first thing every morning, a softer way to wake up. At dinner we use votives, tapers and a few lanterns; I buy my votives in bulk at Pier One so they’re always handy and within reach. Here’s a candle-maker I follow on Instagram with a great selection.
Treat your home to something pretty, new and useful
Could be a score from a consignment shop or thrift store, estate sale or something new. It might be fresh tea towels for the kitchen, a bath sheet for the bathroom, soft new pillowcases, a vase for flowers…Your home should be a welcoming, soothing refuge. Its beauty can and should nurture you.
Two years ago, I splurged on the above-pictured early 19th. century tea set — with cups, saucers, plates, teapot, tea bowl. Every time I use it it makes me happy.
My father made films for a living, mostly documentaries, and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for one; here’s his Wikipedia entry. So maybe my addiction to film comes honestly! In a typical week, I watch probably two or three films, whether a classic on TCM, something on HBO or go to a theater to happily sit in the dark.
My tastes don’t include horror or a lot of comedies. For reasons I can’t explain, I love films about spies and spycraft.
An amazing cast — George Clooney and Matt Damon, two favorites — and a twisted tale of government malfeasance in the MidEast. Clooney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Filmed in Iran, Texas, Switzerland, Lebanon, Spain and D.C. (this kind of multi-national location shooting seems to be a theme of my favorites!) They used 200 locations on four continents. It also feels, right now, terribly timely in light of terrible Saudi behavior — and American complicity in it.
Clooney again! This time, corporate malfeasance. (Hmm, I see a theme.) Also in the cast is the phenomenal British actor Tom Wilkinson , playing a corporate executive whose conscience over a highly dangerous and profitable agro-chemical lands him in the wrong hands. The fantastic British actress Tilda Swinton plays the firm’s smarmy lawyer — the final scene, shot in a midtown Manhattan hotel — is one of my favorites. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and it’s well deserved. Clooney, badly shaven and hollow-eyed, plays a “fixer”, a lawyer assigned to clean up the firm’s messy cases. It made many critics’ list of the year’s top ten films.
Of course! If you’ve never seen this classic, a gorgeous black-and-white film with some of the all-time great lines — you must! Ingmar Bergman and Humphrey Bogart star; she as a European refugee fleeing war-torn Europe and he as a tough-talking American bar owner in that Moroccan city.
I must have watched this Stanley Kubrick film 20 times since I first saw it as a young girl. To my eyes, it hasn’t dated at all — even the subtlest details of what space travel might look and sound like having come to fruition now or some variation of same. The soundtrack, the special effects, the costumes and the ending which still puzzles so many. Its esthetic deeply affected many later films.
OK, OK. Schlocky, I know. But ohhhh, so much action and so many crazy chase and fight scenes from Berlin to Tangier to Paris and such a lonely hero, played in every version but one by Matt Damon (later Jeremy Renner.) I’ve seen every one of these so many times I know them off by heart but still enjoy them. I also love how he never does anything vaguely normal — like laundry or groceries. There are five in the series.
If you love magazines and fashion as much as I do — let alone a film (based on a true story about being the assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour), about an ambitious New York City female journalist — this is the one for you. I know the dialogue by heart but still enjoy it: the designer clothes, her insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, and a great scene with Stanley Tucci that sums up what it really takes. Made for $35 million, it’s since grossed 10 times that in revenues.
Another film about journalism, this one winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. Also based on a true story, this recreates the teamwork it took at the Boston Globe to expose horrific sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church. I love Rachel McAdams, a fellow Canadian, as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer — it’s one of the few films ever made that really shows what shoe-leather reporting is: all those interviews, all that door-knocking, all those documents to read.
It’s a boys’ club at the Washington Post — but what a club! This re-creation of the reporting on the Watergate scandal that brought down former U.S. President Richard Nixon, stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, a dream team in itself. This film, too, shows the persistence and guts it can take to sniff out a major story and get people to share enough to make it publishable.
Klaus Kinski as a crazed expedition leader in 16th century Peru. The final scene is extraordinary — a raft floating helplessly downriver, with Aguirre raging, the lone survivor. I love all of Werner Herzog’s films, but this one most of all and it’s considered one of both Herzog’s best films and one of the best films ever made.
An 18th century story about a Jesuit mission deep in the Argentine jungle, starring Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons. The soundtrack is astoundingly beautiful, by the legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. The opening image is unforgettable — it won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography (and was nominated in six other categories.)
Few films have had as much an impact on later work as the esthetic of this one, directed by Ridley Scott, later better known for the Alien films. Everything drips with rain, streets are crowded and gleam with neon. Harrison Ford plays the Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, whose job it is to seek out and destroy replicants, robots who appear human. The eerie soundtrack is by Vangelis, best known for his score of the film Chariots of Fire. I also love the 2017 sequel, Bladerunner 2049, again starring Harrison Ford.
Another (!) film I love starring Matt Damon, and another focused on spycraft, specifically the beginnings of the CIA. Damon stars, as does Angelina Jolie in a film focused on themes of family loyalty versus that to one’s craft. I’m also partial to this movie since a scene was filmed in the town we live in, Tarrytown, New York.
To my mind, admittedly as someone who’s loved this one for decades, one of the most visually compelling films I’ve ever seen, directed by the late great David Lean (who also did Lawrence of Arabia.) Julie Christie is Lara, Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya, set at the time of the Russian Revolution. It was filmed in Finland, Spain and Canada.
The word itself means migration, or flight from danger and the songs are all about movement and restlessness.
On it, Neil Young — another Canadian — plays harmonica and the stunningly talented Brazilian bass player Jaco Pastorius makes this distinctively different from her previous work.
It was a tough year for me, my sophomore year at University of Toronto, both of my parents traveling far away, long before cell phones or the Internet, when a long-distance call to Europe or Latin America was really expensive. I was living on very little, freelancing as a writer and photographer while attending the country’s most demanding school full-time.
I dated all the the wrong men, (as Mitchell did, for decades), discarding them as quickly as I found them. Connection was both alluring and exhausting, a theme of that album.
Mitchell also has a home where my mother — also a fiercely independent traveler for many years — lived for a while, the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver.
I met a friend of spirit He drank and womanized And I sat before his sanity I was holding back from crying He saw my complications And he mirrored me back simplified And we laughed how our perfection Would always be denied “Heart and humor and humility” He said “Will lighten up your heavy load” I left him for the refuge of the roads
The book offers a great ride through her life, from her years in small-town Saskatchewan to her initial success in the coffee-houses of Toronto to playing Carnegie Hall and touring with Bob Dylan.
It offers insights into her addictions — to cocaine and to cigarettes — and her deep ambivalence about marriage, which she tried twice.
It’s a compelling portrait of a fiercely independent woman.
This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.
For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.
For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.
Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.
Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.
Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.