Molly Wizenberg on Big Leaps and David Byrne
Success isn’t always straightforward. I mean, duh. But sometimes it’s hard to remember that in real life. That’s what my novel Ten Girls to Watch is all about (did I mention that it comes out IN FOUR DAYS!), and Molly Wizenberg is an amazing real-life case in point. She’s the author of the book A Homemade Life and has another book on the way. She’s also the author of the lovely blog Orangette, co-owner of the restaurant Delancey and the craft cocktail bar Essex, both in Seattle, and she’s about to be a mom! Pretty great, right? But flash back a few years and she was dropping out of her PhD program and trying to figure out how on earth she was going to follow her food and cooking dreams. Not exactly a kushy spot to be in, but look at her now! Read on for her whole story. It’s pretty awesome.
What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
I had no idea. Absolutely no idea. I had a degree in human biology and a minor in French, but I had chosen them because I liked them, not because I had big aspirations in those areas. I loved food and cooking, too, but I’d tried working as a restaurant cook, and it wasn’t a good fit for me, so that sort of went nowhere. I would eventually wind up going to graduate school for cultural anthropology, but it would take me a few months after college graduation to even begin to think about that — and even then, I didn’t have firm plans for what to do with the degree. I just wanted to keep learning.
What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school?
During winter quarter of my senior year of college, I was taking a French literature class, and in it, I met a fellow student who told me about an incredible program offered through the French Ministry of Education. Basically, the program brings in native English speakers (and speakers of other non-French languages) to work for a year as language teaching assistants in French schools. (Here’s a website about it.) You work 12 hours a week and get all the benefits of being a legal resident, and the money you make isn’t bad – really good, actually, for just a dozen hours. I applied and was assigned to teach English conversation classes in a high school just outside of Paris, in a town called Saint-Cloud. It was pretty awesome, because I was 23 and living on my own in Paris(!!!), but it was also awful at times, because I only sort of knew what I was doing with the kids. The program gave us assistants an orientation session and some teacher-training sessions, but it wasn’t really enough for me to feel like I knew how to do my job well. I spent a decent number of class periods playing Hangman with my students. (Sorry, French taxpayers!) And my supervisor in the English department had had a not-so-secret affair with a previous teaching assistant and seemed to be hoping for a similar situation with me, so at times it was… awkward.
What was your first real apartment like?
My first real apartment was in Paris, and let me tell you, typing that sentence still makes me a little giddy. It was a small studio apartment in the 11th arrondissement, and the kitchen was essentially an alcove — two electric burners, a tiny sink, and a mini bar-sized fridge – in the hallway between the front door and my bed. There was one chair in the corner, but most nights, I sat on the bed to eat dinner. I loved that apartment. I can still hear the sound the door made when it closed behind me. It was heavy and loud, and whenever the weather got hot, it swelled and stuck like crazy.
Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?
I think mostly of music. I was listening to a lot of Fugazi then — that’s true of me from age 14 to 24, actually, and still sometimes now — and a lot of Radiohead, too. Radiohead’s album The Bends particularly reminds me of the year that I was doing that teaching gig in France. My boyfriend at the time was back in the States, in Oklahoma (where I’m from), and the whole time I was in Paris, I felt this potent mix of euphoria (I’m in FRANCE!) and longing (I’m in love with someone who’s 5,000 miles away!). For me, that album is those feelings.
Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
Let’s see. After that year in France, I came back to the States to start a doctoral program in Seattle (where I live now), and after my second year of that, I decided to quit. I’d lost my dad to very aggressive cancer during my first year, and I’d struggled all along with a nagging feeling that I just didn’t want the degree the way my peers did. I didn’t want to be an anthropologist or a university professor. At a certain point — when I needed to be applying for big dissertation grants and such — I realized that I had to make a decision. It’s not really a break in the sense of success, but that moment was a biggie. I decided to leave graduate school and instead focus somehow on food and cooking, a hobby that had begun to feel more and more important to me. I wanted to be a food writer. But of course, I had nothing to show for myself! (The only writing I’d ever had published was a poem in a literary magazine in high school.) So the worse case scenario, I figured, was that I would get a job doing something, anything — working in a grocery store sounded pretty good — and work on writing in my free time.
As it happened, though, I wound up staying in school for a third year, because I got an internship that gave me free tuition and part-time income. And from there, after I finished that last year of school, the internship turned into a full-time job, which got me through the next year and half. It sounds cheesy, but the decision to quit my PhD program turned out to be a real “leap, and the net will appear” situation.
How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”?
Getting my first book deal, without a doubt. I started my blog Orangette the summer that I decided to leave graduate school, and I worked on it during my last year of school and the year after, when I was working full-time. By that point, it was really starting to take off, and one thing led to another. I was put in touch with an agent and an editor who believed in what I was doing and gave me the opportunity to write full-time, to write my first book. That was five and a half years ago now, and it still feels pretty unreal sometimes.
Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
David Byrne! He’s a singer, songwriter, author, artist, movie director, bicycling advocate, former leader of Talking Heads, and general brilliant weirdo. I love that he’s reinvented himself many times over, and that he’s been successful at doing his own thing according to his own rules. (If you want to see something great, watch this.) This is really going to get cheesy, but he kind of makes me feel like I can do anything.
Thanks so much to Molly for answering all my questions! Now go get her book!