Writers Discuss Writing of New York’s Most Popular

(L to R) New York Magazine editor-in-chief Adam Moss, contributing editors Steve Fishman, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Jennifer Senior

New York and Byliner celebrated the launch of their new eBook yesterday with a live reading from three of the featured writers. “New York Magazine’s Most Popular” is the very first eBook that New York has published, and features 26 of the magazine’s most popular stories from the past five years, one of which is a book excerpt from John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change. Web analytics were used to determine the most popular stories, and among them were Steve Fishman’s “The Madoff Tapes,” Vanessa Grigoriadis’ “Growing up Gaga” and Jennifer Senior’s “All Joy and No Fun.” These three writers read excerpts of their articles and talked about the writing process with New York editor-in-chief Adam Moss and Byliner.com editor Michael Solomon. Interestingly, Moss said that these pieces and their fellow most popular cohorts were not the ones that were most popular on a day-to-day basis. Rather, they had accumulated their popularity over time, and the content “was actually the more substantial, meatier stuff that we did.”

Fishman’s story was understandably one of the most popular—his interviews with the imprisoned Bernie Madoff were the scoop of a lifetime. Nobody had succeeded in getting an interview with the Ponzi-schemer, and it took Fishman a year to finally speak to Madoff. During the Q&A session after the readings, he talked about how he managed to get his big break after unsuccessfully writing many letters to Madoff and his fellow inmates. A “friend” from the federal parole bureau put him in touch with some of the prison’s former inmates, who introduced him to Robert Rosso—his “prison fixer.” Rosso, a former drug trafficker, was sentenced to life without parole. While in prison, Rosso ran gambling and drug trafficking operations, and even managed to sustain a drug and alcohol addiction until he decided to turn his life around by pursuing an interest in journalism.

Fishman credits Rosso with really being the first person to interview Madoff after his incarceration, an act that got Rosso thrown in “the hole” (solitary confinement). The two bonded over their shared interest in writing and journalism, and Fishman asked Rosso to pass along a letter to Madoff. “He got my letter to Madoff and vouched for my character,” said Fishman, laughing, and before long he got a collect call from Madoff himself. His account shows just how much time and effort goes into getting a scoop like that.

Grigoriadis also had some trouble with access for her Gaga story. She had walked away from a longer feature on Gaga after the pop star cancelled on her multiple times. When she tried to continue with the Gaga story, the record company refused to give her access. It wasn’t until much later in the process—after she had talked to 20 or 30 people who had known Gaga—that the record label came through. But by that time, “we already knew the story we wanted to tell, which was her growing up in New York City and how she created herself,” said Grigoriadis. The lack of access helped shape the story, which did leave the record label unhappy. “Nobody wants the story of their life, how they became this artist today, told not on their terms,” she said. “But, they should have cooperated with the interview.”

Senior’s piece on the despair of parenting presented its own challenges. It was not the access that was an issue, but synthesizing the information in the right way. Informed by reporting, sociological and psychological studies, this type of writing does not only resonate well with readers—“they’re really hard to write,” said Moss. “You see a lot of magazine pieces that are what I consider editor’s conceits. There is something that nine people discuss at a dinner party and they think that’s a cover story,” he said. Essential to writing a piece like this one is good reporting, tons of research, but most importantly a good analytic mind, said Moss.