Rachel Bertsche on First Apartment Smells
When you’re in school, you’re in classrooms full of people. You get assigned to lab partners. You get matched up for badminton. Friends present themselves in obvious ways, like alphabetical order (hello all my S friends!) But in grown up life, making new friends can be harder, especially when you move to a new city.
In addition to the joys and woes of getting started in this world of ours, the unexpected ways we sometimes make new friends is one of the themes in my fair novel. It’s also the subject of Rachel Bertsche’s fabulous book MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. In the memoir, Rachel moves to Chicago for love, but soon realizes she has a big hole in her heart where friends should be. Over the course of a year, she sets out to change that. The book is a real charmer, and I was thrilled to chat with Rachel about how she got her start as a writer.
What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
I really wanted to be a magazine editor. I read a million magazines as a kid. I read YM and Seventeen and Sassy, and eventually, after all the time I spent reading them, I realized I just really wanted to work at them too.
What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? Was there anything that made it particularly awesome or awful?
I went to school for magazine journalism, and I was lucky — my first full time real job was as an editorial assistant at O, The Oprah Magazine. I loved it. I had a great boss. It wasn’t a Devil Wears Prada situation. I answered her phones, but I didn’t have to do her kids homework or anything like that. I learned a lot from her.
One of the awesome things about that job, there were just a lot of really really smart women working there. It was a magazine with wonderful writers, and people had very very high expectations. I was able to get used to getting edited in a tough way, which I think is an important lesson for any writer.
What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it?
Oh god, my first apartment. My first apartment had rats. And also bed bugs and also mice. It was a sixth floor walk up in the East Village. A steep sixth floor walk up. It was a decent size, but even so my room fit a double bed and that was it. But when you’re 22 — everyone thought it was the most fabulous apartment. My mom talked about it like it was this horrible hole, but we loved it at the time.
Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?
My roommate and I, when we were hung over, we’d hang comforters on the windows to block out the sun, and then we’d just lay in the apartment and watch Monk and SVU and order pizza. We had two couches, perpendicular to the TV, and we’d each take a couch and just lie there. It was so great.
That apartment was also right above a Subway sandwich shop, so there was that smell of bread baking that is sometimes really great and sometimes so disgusting. That apartment and the stairs and the Subway — all I have to do is smell it and I’m right back there.
Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
I remember when I sold my first book, I thought “is this the moment I’m always going to look back on?” But I think the Oprah Magazine job was really it. It’s funny, I graduated in June and got the job in September, and at the time, I thought I had been looking for a job forever. I’m very very glad it all worked out.
Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
This is a little different, but there was a literary agent years ago who reached out to me and said she’d read some of my magazine work and thought my writing was fresh and provocative and that she’d love to talk with me about any book ideas I had. I always thought that it would be cool to write a book, but it felt like this mysterious industry. Getting that email felt like, hey, there’s an in here. She didn’t end up being my agent, but she kickstarted the idea for me, and I’m really grateful for that.
Thanks so much, Rachel! And check out her book, kids. I think you’ll like it.