Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize winning cultural critic who wrote about books, theater, and the arts for The New York Times for thirteen years. Her writing has also appeared in Bookforum, Salon, The Nation, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Vogue, and Newsweek, among many other publications. Her book On Michael Jackson was published by Pantheon in 2006 and Vintage in 2007, and the essay she wrote on Michelle Obama, Movin’ On Up, was published in Best African American Essays: 2010. She also wrote and performed Sixty Minutes in Negroland at The Cherry Lane Theater and The Culture Project.

Jefferson received a B.A. from Brandeis University and a M.S. from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. She teaches Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College and Writing at Columbia University.

A startling presence in any room she enters, Jefferson moves with the grace of a dancer, speaks with the authority of a statesman, and thinks with the quickness of a whip.

What was Margo like as a child?

Margo as a child was very theatrical. She liked to take over rooms. Perform. Not so much singing and dancing, more, “I’m going to say something.” Declaim! I once arrived at a little party in my circle and one of the boys looked up as I came in and he went, “Bla, bla, bla…” [Laughs.] I was high strung and high spirited.

And were you a reader?

Yes. Always. I was read to a lot by my mother, who was a lovely reader. Not just at night. She’d read poetry. There’d be children’s books, Winnie the Pooh books, Alice in Wonderland.

Do you have siblings?

I have one sister who was also a real reader. Three years older. In the summers especially, we would go to the library and sign out books and we’d just spend the afternoon on two ends of the couch, or on separate couches.

And at that point, did you start thinking about books as written by someone?

When I was quite young, say five, six, seven, I don’t think I was thinking about that. As I got older— eight, nine, ten— then certain poets would interest me…and then, as my sister was three years older, she would be reading Robert Louis Stevenson, something like that. When she got a little older, she was reading these huge Dumas bricks, The Three Musketeers. Then I would associate them with, you know, writers!

What did you think that meant?

It meant having very intense responses to things. And being able to do something magical with words.

When you had that thought, did you start trying to do magical things with words yourself?

I didn’t. You know, it’s funny. I didn’t translate that directly. I did my writing in a more decorous, schooly way. The school I went to, we had teachers who had us write a lot. And I loved it. One fifth grade teacher in particular. She would say, “It’s time to write a story.” And then we’d have a certain amount of time and I absolutely loved it. And I also did dabble in poetry in those early years. Believe me, totally banal stuff. I got a little published in the local library journal. My mother had worked for this librarian when she was in college and she was known in our neighborhood as a great children’s librarian, so she saw a couple of my little poems. It felt very nice.

Your first publication!

I was very excited to see it in print. I was very proud.

Much later, when you were first paid for your writing, do you remember what that felt like?

The first piece that I was paid for, I believe, was a piece I’d been working on in graduate school and it was about rock and roll. It was 1970 and I felt very strongly about all this! But it was more exciting that it was published, it was published in Harper’s. I mean, it was nice to get paid, but, oh my God…!

Harper’s!

Exactly!

Let’s backtrack. You got your BA in literature?

Yes. English and American lit. And I really did no writing in college, except for my college papers.

Did you go straight to journalism school after that?

No. I took two years out.

What did you do during those two years?

I took young-woman-in-New-York jobs and played around the city and had a good time. But the first semester out of college I was actually a young woman in Cambridge. I was in a theater group, then that fell apart. I worked for a graphics gallery. Then I moved to New York— this would have been 1970— and the job I got was as secretary for Planned Parenthood. I was working for the woman who was in charge of nursing. Working for her was not especially interesting, but 1970 at Planned Parenthood was interesting. The women’s movement was absolutely unfolding. People were already starting to talk about if abortion was going to become legal. A few years later it became legal in New York State and an old college friend who had been a secretary with me became head of abortion referral services.

It was a place where things were happening.

Yes. And there were debates all over the world about birth control, all that.

How come you got that job?

It was sheer luck. I was just looking for a job and it fell into my lap. I was looking through newspapers for something that sounded like it might be interesting.

What did you do at Planned Parenthood?

I typed things up. I collated. I had intense discussions about feminism with the two other secretaries.

Had you already been interested in those issues, or did you become interested in them when you got that job?

It was new, but it tapped in to things one had been feeling for a long time. And I’ll tell you one thing it did: it helped galvanize my vision. Within a year, my friend Susie had become head of abortion referral services and I had applied to graduate school for journalism. I was either going to do that or get a PhD in American Studies. I would have done something like this anyway, but it happened much faster.

Because of that environment?

Yes. And because of talking about, you know, taking hold of our destinies as women! What are our gifts? What do I want to be in the world? I wanted to be a critic. I wanted to talk about things.

Had you thought of going to journalism school before, or did you realize doing so was a way to do what you now knew you wanted to do?

That’s what I saw. This is a way to get at it. I had no particular passion for newspapers. Some journalists do. For me, it was a way to be in the world, thinking and writing. I knew I wanted to do nonfiction, and I thought I wanted to do criticism, so I didn’t really think of an MFA program because in those days, there were not nearly as many and they were for fiction writers. So journalism wasn’t the perfect fit, but I thought it was going to work much better than starting out the way people often do, you know, at a newspaper or a news magazine. I felt I would be learning, in some academic atmosphere, the elements of this craft.

This was 1970-71, you graduated from undergrad in 1968. The academic atmosphere that you were in was very dynamic and electrified. Can you tell me about being in college at that time?

I got out of undergrad [Brandeis] in 1968. I had friends who had been in the uprisings at Columbia, I had been in demonstrations at Brandeis. The world was being made anew. The Columbia library would subscribe to the counter culture magazines, and it was thrilling to read them. You could go anyplace in the city, the counter culture was everywhere. I remember one night several friends of mine and I went to hear what turned out to be one of the first gay rights talks on campus. That may have been the night that Kate Millett, one of the major feminists of the day, came out as bisexual. At the end of the night a dear friend of mine who was a student at the J-school from Denmark went up to one of the speakers and said, “Let me do a profile of you!” I mean, this was all completely new to us. It was terribly exciting.

Even if you weren’t so active yourself, it was everywhere. I was very pleased to think of myself as a radical!

When you were at the J-school, where were you living?

I was living in a dorm that was on 116th and Amsterdam. It used to be called Johnson Hall. There we were, this funny group of young women.

It was young women that you gravitated towards?

Yes. I had some very nice male classmates, but you were very theatrically, politically, emotionally conscious— in a good way— of yourself as a young woman in a time of change. When it seemed as though everything was possible.

When you graduated from the Columbia Journalism School, did you feel frightened of the next step, or sure of where you wanted to go?

Well, you know, I shilly-shallied a bit. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, so I took some odd jobs and freelanced and, actually, I was lucky. I got some work from the Washington Post’s Style Section, I got some work from the new Ms. Magazine. I would transcribe tapes for friends who were writing books, I worked as an assistant to professors at Columbia…you know, I was just doing odds and ends. And then, a few years in an old teacher of mine said to me, “You know Margo, people don’t really take you seriously when you say you’re a freelancer. It’s time for you to get a job with a magazine.” She had a point.

At that point I had acquired, through my little shilly-shallying, a nice collection of clips. So, I started asking around. And, actually, my sister had a friend who worked at Newsweek. I got in touch with her and asked, “Could you just find out if there’s even anything available that I could apply for?” And I did. I went through a long series of interviews and brought all of my little clips in, and eventually I got hired as a junior junior book critic in the Arts Department.

How did you get those freelance gigs that led to clips to begin with?

I sent query letters. You could always get a name from someone, and the J-School was useful that way. You always had to write to someone in particular and say that so and so suggested that I write you, and then you told them the kind of thing you were interested in. And that is how it happened.

Either there is a direct contact— like my sister had a friend at Newsweek! Or, in those days, people would read query letters faster. I still know people who write query letters and get responses, but it seemed easier in those days. Ms. was starting up. They turned down a few of my ideas at first, but then they came up with an idea of something they wanted me to do, for example.

Where were you living at that time?

I was living on the Upper West Side. I shared an apartment with a friend on West 86th and Broadway. Later, I had a little studio on 156 between West End and Riverside. It was not hard economically in those days. There were cheap little apartments.

What might a typical day have looked like for you then?

When I was sharing an apartment, my roommate and I would have breakfast together. Sometimes we would go out to a café…then I’d come back and try to write or really write if I actually had an assignment. Or do research for whatever I was doing, listen to music, be on the phone…and then go out at night. I might go to a club, I might just go hang out with friends, have dinner.

Did you cook for yourself or eat out mostly?

I ate out more. I cooked for myself in a very dilatory way. I liked to eat out much, much, much more. Oh, the kinds of food and the kinds of restaurants that would satisfy you…like, Chicken Burger! It was just fine. It all seemed sort of cool. Or even that lousy Tom’s, up by Columbia. Grilled cheese sandwiches.

When you were at Newsweek, did you feel as your teacher had said, that it was a new chapter for you, new stability and recognition— all that?

I felt a certain kind of “professionalism” and stability, yes. I suddenly had a regular salary. I didn’t particularly like it.

Why not?

You’ve read Newsweek’s reviews. It’s very codified.

There is not a lot of room for your own acrobatics.

No. You really have to learn a style. Just the right blend of felicitousness, and irony, and curiousness…you never wrote past a certain length. And that got very, very wary. I did it for five years. I was feeling very stultified.

What came of it in terms of lessons learned? There must have been a new disciplined involved.

That is what I mean when I say “professionalism.” I learned how to craft and shape things— usually book reviews but also an enormously wide range of things. I learned how to apply my brain unquestioningly to a huge range of subjects and to find a way to get interested in them. One week I am doing a story on the five anarchist women who were against the Czar, the next week I am doing a biography of George Sand, and then I’m doing a first novel…

It does sound like a lot of fun, though. Because you got to read and think about so many different things.

It was. I also had a sort of double mandate. I really felt it was important, as a reviewer, to call attention to books by women and by a wide range of people of color. At the same time, I was very determined not to be type cast. You know, as the writer to go to who always and only does that. I worked hard at that. And I succeeded in doing both, and I am proud of myself for that.

Were people you worked with at Newsweek aware of that goal, or were you working under your own prerogative?

I don’t know how aware of it they were. Sometimes, it just happened that it was easy for me to claim these books because other people weren’t particularly interested in them. I remember doing a V.S. Naipaul novel. Well, a few years later, since I had no seniority, no one was going to let me do that! I did an early Toni Morrison, but when one of her later novels came out, one of my senior people took it! So, as a utility player, it was only practical to let me do a wide range of things.

You were there for five years and then…?

I was there for five years and then I thought, “Oh, maybe I should have gotten a PhD in American Studies after all!” So I left and spent exactly one semester at Yale. I thought, “Wait a minute! Why am I writing papers that only a professor will see? I’m not getting any money for it. Is this really where I want to be?” And it wasn’t.

So, I came back to New York and I thought, “If I want to do different kinds of writing, let me try to support myself teaching.” The first full-time teaching job I had was at NYU in their journalism department. And that is when I started writing for the Village Voice, the Nation, the Soho Weekly News, several newspapers. Teaching allowed me to stretch.

So, in a way, teaching was a way to say: “I’ll have this stability as a backbone, and then be able to take more risks writing.”

Exactly. To do exactly what I had not done at Newsweek. To develop a wider range, to do more with my voice, to really take risks as a critical voice, and also to write about different things.

What was teaching like?

It wasn’t hard for me to do, and I liked it.

There is that performance spirit again…

I guess so! And when you get results, it is very satisfying. And to feel that in some way you can influence people, that is gratifying too. And definitely performance.

You have to control the room. It’s like your child-self…

Declaiming and declaring again, that’s right! One thing that also appealed to me— the academy has plenty of rules and regulations— but basically, even if you cannot always choose the courses you teach, the material that you choose is your own. And I felt more freedom with that. How I am shaping the arch of a course. There is not an executive editor over me saying, “No that book is not acceptable…”

Did the living change for you during this time?

It was the gilded, greedy eighties. It felt less open. God knows there were experiments going on, but it felt more codified and greedy, definitely. The art world started to explode with all that huge money.

Less counter culture, more suits?

Yes, I think so. You know, Regan became president in those years. Donald Trump started to rise maybe a little later in the eighties. But, you know, I was in my thirties, so I think I was starting to feel a little jaded, too.

How long did you teach for?

I was at NYU for about three years, the late seventies, early eighties. Then I went to Vogue, in 1984, as a Contributing Editor— which meant that I was on contract for a certain number of pieces a year. It was good because I had health insurance but I could write for other places too. That was actually fun. Because I really started to write pieces that were not only literary. I started writing about movies, about popular culture…I actually wrote the first piece I ever wrote about Michael Jackson and his strange transformation for Vogue. That was fun.

I had only written for basically male-centric magazines, so… Women’s magazines do have that kind of “la la la la la,” voice, which you can parody and can be silly but can also give you a certain kind of freedom. It allowed me to be a little more playful and conversational. That was kind of interesting. It was a shift.

Tell me about how you made the shift from writing primarily about literature to all these other cultural topics.

I just navigated it. You could often present article ideas, they needed that. So, when Rock Hudson died, I said, “This is interesting. These ‘50’s actors, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Cliff, James Dean, Marlon Brando, who stand for this macho era and ideal, have all in some way partaken in sexual ambiguity. Let me write about this!” So, I did. That was how it started to happen.

Similarly, you started at the New York Times doing primarily book reviews and then…

Then I navigated the same thing, that’s right! I went from Vogue back to NYU for a couple of years, then I went to Columbia— I was divided between their English and Writing departments. Then, in ’93, the Times offered me the job. I think I was only writing book reviews for the first two years. Then I did theater, and then I got the column that was sort of all over the map.

It really suited my means, but it also seemed to me that culture was marked by the arts borrowing from each other, commenting on politics, sports, you name it. All forms were feeding off all other forms, so it felt appropriate. Toward the end, I did culture pieces, I had the column, I did a once a month book column…so, I was kind of everywhere. Piecing different elements of the culture together seems to be, finally, my passion, in whatever form it takes.

You talked about Newsweek having a very codified voice, and Vogue having a different kind of voice but a voice nonetheless. How did you feel about the Times?

The Times has a style book, absolutely. It’s gotten much looser, for better and for worse. But there are certain things you just can’t say. They just started letting you use contractions a little while after I got there! Arbitrarily, words would be taken out of your pieces. As with any place that has a voice of its own, and all magazines and newspapers, even websites, do, you learn it, you sense it yourself. You can play your games with how to get around it, but you cooperate.

How long were you there for?

I was at the Times for twelve-thirteen years.

Does it become difficult, after writing in a specific voice for such a long time, to step away from it?

It does. And also, it’s the voice you’re known for. Fortunately, the thing that eased it for me was that I had started to write the book [On Michael Jackson] in the last month, so I was really leaving in part so that I could work in another way— just like the Newsweek story again! So I knew that, even though it wasn’t an entirely new voice, there was a voice that could continue to develop.

Did you face any challenges that were specific to being a woman through your journey at all these places?

There are always gender things at every place, and there are always questions that range from disparate salaries, two tones of voice, two attitudes. I was never sexually harassed. Sometimes it is much less than that, whether it’s being patronized or some guy being able to get away with things that you can’t.

Can you think of an early challenge that sticks out to you?

I remember when I went in for my interview with the Arts Editor of Newsweek, who was a very jovial and very bright man. While I was being interviewed by him, another Newsweek employee walked in. Now, this second man was a movie reviewer at Newsweek and he had also taught film writing at Columbia the year I’d been a student there. The back story to that was that Judith Crist, who was then a very well known critic, had been invited to teach a film writing course my year at Columbia. She had asked everyone who wanted to be in the course to submit a piece. She accepted ten of us. The people who didn’t get accepted lobbied for the school to get another teacher there to teach a second course in film writing— film was very big in those days. They got this younger guy to do it.

So this guy, Paul, walks into the office as the Arts Editor is interviewing me and he says, “Oh, do you two know each other?” And Paul says to me, in front of the man who is interviewing me, “Yes, I know you. You were in Judy Crist’s class. I got the second class. But, you know, I had a really terrific student who I recommended but he couldn’t get an interview here because he wasn’t black or a woman.”

Talk about getting away with things.

Just walking in there, trying to sabotage, and having a little petulant fit out of your own ego! It was lethal. It really was nasty.

A lot of things like that would happen. Not just strictly to me, but to me and a lot of people. It used to circulate that guys would be told, “Come back in six months, we’ll have played lip to our quota of blacks or Latinos or women and some of them will be gone and we can hire you.” All the controversy today around Title 9 reminds me of this.

Well, if it wasn’t for quotas, men wouldn’t even get into college anymore because women now have so much better grades. We’ve had to deal for thousands of years so men can…

That’s right! Line up. Line up! And learn how to behave nicely about it.

What about some great triumph you experienced?

In the external world, the Pulitzer was certainly a great triumph. Two editors took me out to lunch and told me that I had gotten it. And that was amazing. It was very thrilling, it was very disorienting. About a year later, I ran into Isabel Wilkerson, who had won the Pulitzer a few years before me. She took me aside and asked, “Did you find it unsettling, that in some ways it was hard to work after that?” And I said, “Yes!”

Tell me about that.

I think I started feeling like, “Oh my God, now everywhere I write I have to prove myself. Every word I write, people are going to be wondering, ‘Did she really deserve that?’ Or, ‘She was really good then, but what’s happening now…?’”

Did that feeling last for a long time?

Fortunately, I was still at the Times so I had to keep going. I had to keep writing. And that is what that kind of discipline is good for. You know, I am periodically assailed by bouts of self-doubt, I always have been, but that [the Pulitzer] was a wonderful thing.

More internally, the triumphs are… Talking to you I realize, okay, for all of the self-doubt, for all of the things I haven’t done that I still want to do, there is this path of consistently trying to do more. Saying, “Okay, I’m stuck in a groove, I need to push out of it, let me test myself more.” I’ve been a critic, now let me try to write a book. Now let me try the essay form in a real personal way. Now I am working on something that involves memoir more. I am proud of that. Because it can be convenient and very comforting, especially in journalism, to settle into a voice and a beat that is kind of the equivalent of, if you were an actor, the identifying role that you put out week after week; you might do it terrifically, but it’s for thirty minutes, and it’s always the same kind of thing. And I think I have always tried to push myself outside of the comfortable range.

Moving from someplace safe doesn’t just take stylistic courage, in today’s society where health insurance is so precariously pinned to your job and so on, it takes real life courage to dare to give up the stable option. Did you ever feel that you wanted to choose something more stable, that you couldn’t really always follow your artistic inclinations?

No, but I stayed some places longer than I would’ve if I had been able to mobilize a little faster. That’s part of life. The desire to mobilize comes from the feeling that I am not developing and I am just getting too angry, and too sour, and too resistant. You don’t like to see yourself like that.

Now that you can look back on this long career, is there anything you would have told that young Margo living on 156 street?

I would have told her to take more risks. Absolutely. Take more risks. Start your own very own private, personal writing. The kind where you are terrified of the page, and terrified of judgment…I think in some ways I let being a critic exacerbate my anxiety about, “It’s not perfect, so I may as well not do it,” or, “It’s not perfect, so I’ll hide it away.” So, I would say, find a way to let that go and just keep at it.

Any other general advice to young writers?

You know, I always say that you have to keep questioning yourself; if anything makes you uncomfortable when you’re writing, if it makes you feel squeamish about yourself or about the world, that is what you have to go for. That is true, but you also always have to find ways to give yourself real pleasure as a writer. And maybe that means writing poems that aren’t very good, or writing song lyrics…it means doing things, part of the time, that you really like when you read them. You just have to find ways to amuse and please yourself and be a little random and whimsical sometimes. Because that is what keeps the suffering in proportion.


Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander

Photo by Elizabeth Kendall

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