Stories

How One Freelancer Broke Into ‘The New Yorker’ From Afar

By Charles Bethea September 23rd, 2016

The New Yorker is famously hard for freelance writers to crack. It took John McPhee, who has since written 29 books and won a Pulitzer Prize, more than 10 years to gain entry.

Even when new writers do sneak in, there’s no guarantee of a repeat performance, something I know firsthand. Back in 2008, in my mid-twenties, I was working as an editor at a now-defunct travel magazine based in New Mexico. This didn’t particularly suit me—I wanted meatier subject matter, some bylines, and maybe (if I’m being honest) some Almost Famous action—but this was during the recession and I understood that having any publishing gig was lucky.

In my down time, I sent “Talk of the Town” pitches after another editor at the travel magazine shared the email address of an editor at The New Yorker with me. (My fellow editor openly harbored the same goal/delusion of writing for The New Yorker.)

These pitches of mine were, in fact, fully written and reported little stories. I remember one about a web site called GarbageScout.com, which offered an interactive online mapping system that allowed users to post and discover discarded curbside treasure in New York. (My cute suggested title: “Trash Talk.”)

Close but not quite, replied Lauren, the editor. A reply! She was encouraging, too: I’d done a pretty good job of imitating the section’s voice. So I kept at it, and more kindly worded rejections came back in turn.

I’d submitted a half dozen pieces to Lauren when I received a mass email from a friend. Its contents didn’t matter, but crucially, I’d noticed the odd email address of another recipient: barackobama@gmail.com.

Obama wasn’t President yet, but he was a historic candidate and well on his way. Who, I wondered, had managed to obtain this address, and did this person—assuming it wasn’t Obama himself—receive misdirected emails all the time? The delightfully odd answer was an email away. About two weeks later, the story of Guru Raj and his email address was a “Talk” story in The New Yorker with the title “Obama’s In-Box.”

An editor walked into my office and congratulated me on “building a life raft.” (A prescient compliment: The travel magazine would go under that year.) A few months later, I quit the editing job and launched my freelance career—a bit prematurely, it turns out, but with a head full of steam and the kind of outsized ambition that often follows a taste of early success.

It wasn’t until seven years later, however, that I placed another story in The New Yorker. I wasn’t trying much in the interim, after a flurry of near-misses. Instead, I spent most of those years learning how to really report and write, which I really didn’t know how to do back in 2008, despite my initial luck.

I labored at a city magazine in Atlanta, where I had moved to, and then at a few national titles, including Outside. I was writing long investigative stories, profiles, adventure narratives, essays. My sights had shifted to longform. But I was still a magazine writer, and The New Yorker, the magazine I most admired, remained my goal: usually far-off-seeming, but sometimes maddeningly close.

Last fall, as this strange and depressing presidential campaign got underway, I actively began searching for “Talk” stories again. My first and only “Talk” piece had been election-related—why not try that tack again? (The “Talk” section of the magazine is typically New York-focused. But during presidential campaigns, the possibilities expand.)

With Donald Trump burrowing into my brain last September, I Googled “history of the comb-over.” A few hours later, I was emailing with a Baltimore-based hairdresser named Janet Stephens, who moonlighted as a “hairstyle archeologist.” The new “Talk” editor thought my paragraph summary of this woman’s sideline gig was funny. She suggested—without guaranteeing she’d want what I found—that I ask Stephens to comment on the hair of the candidates, with attention to any historical precedents. That approach led to “By a Hair,” a funny “Talk” story that appeared in the magazine a week or so later.

My presidential election focus has led to a half dozen “Talk” stories in the past year. All have been reported by phone, usually from Atlanta. One examined a poetry web site full of poems about the candidates. Another focused on the creation and campaign-related peregrinations of a bronze bust of Trump. Most recently, I found a retiree in Poughkeepsie, New York, whose phone number has been mistaken for Trump’s for three long and frustrating years.

Most of these stories were discovered through an imaginative (if peculiar) Google search: “poems about Donald Trump,” “Trump statue,” “history of the comb-over.” The recent phone number piece, however, came about through a number of calls to directory assistance. I wondered: Are there other people in this country who share the name Donald Trump? If so, what’s that like right about now?

I looked for Donald Trumps in a number of cities before stumbling upon the apparent phone number of one such man in Poughkeepsie. It turned out, the man—whom I called maybe six times before finally reaching him—was not named Donald Trump. Instead, through an unfortunate Verizon mix-up, his phone number had been mislabeled as Trump’s. So, while the story wasn’t quite what I thought it would be—most stories aren’t—it turned out to be funny, timely, and “Talk”-worthy.

The takeaway here, I think, is that you don’t need to live in New York to write for The New Yorker, so long as you understand how to write in the magazine’s voice and are creative in your search for story ideas. The “Talk” section is a viable way to land in The New Yorker if you focus on short stories that touch on nationally relevant issues, like a presidential campaign, through quirky characters and surprising narratives. The weirder the better.

In the meantime, don’t quit your day job.

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