Powerbitches’ June salon guest, author and columnist Jennifer Wright, is a force to be reckoned with.
As Harper’s Bazaar's Political Editor-at-Large and a prolific tweeter with an audience of more than 100,000 people, she employs a mix of riotous humor and righteous anger to highlight the injustices of the Trump Administration. She is also a prolific author, publishing four history books (It Ended Badly, Get Well Soon, Killer Fashion, and We Came First, forthcoming October 2019) in just four years.
Quick witted and bubbling over with energy and insight, when we jumped on the phone with Jennifer last week, we bantered about the Democratic primary, the Green New Deal, and the play Hillary and Clinton on Broadway (Jennifer recommends it), before getting down to the nitty gritty of her career as a commentator.
How did you get started in journalism?
I started when I was in college, in Annapolis in Maryland. I wrote a column for the college newspaper and people really liked it, or at least had strong reactions it to it. It was called Jen Sais Quoi and it was a humorous column about things that were going on in the world. It was very open ended, about whatever I wanted. From that, I learned that I loved writing things and having people react to them, and also that it was something I could make money off. I started writing for the local Annapolis magazine, about everything from the best local dentists to “what defines happiness,” which seems like a really big question to tackle in 800 words.
And how did you get from there from where you are today?
I moved to New York the day I graduated, and delusionally assumed that with my clips, again, local dentists in Annapolis, I would immediately get hired at Vogue. I showed up in the lobby of Conde Nast and handed them my resume, and basically said, “I’m here for whoever wants me!” Nobody wanted me. But I did start freelancing for people and I got really lucky. I was at a party one night and I sat next to an editor at the Post, who was complaining about having to interview Dominick Dunne in the morning. I started launching into questions - “Are you going to ask him about the time Frank Sinatra paid a waiter to punch him in the face? Are you going to ask him about the rumor that the Kennedy family put a hit on him after Season in Purgatory?” - and by the time I got to the third question, he asked me if I wanted to do the interview instead.
So I interviewed Dominick Dunne. It was an atrocious interview - we talked about the television show Entourage for 45 minutes, then I asked him he thought prostitution should be legalised. Why I asked that is a mystery, even to me. I was very star struck and not prepared. But it was also the last interview he did because he died immediately afterward, so some people presumably thought I must have insight into the literary goings on in New York and I started writing for more places.
Then I got an offer to be the deputy editor for a new site [Gawker founding editor] Elizabeth Spiers was starting, called The Gloss, which is no longer on the internet. I did that, and I got horribly burnt out like every 20 something who tried to run a website, because it’s a very demanding schedule trying to get up 20 pieces every day. I was briefly the editor of the fashion supplement at the New York Observer, then I got my first book deal.
My first book It Ended Badly was published in 2015, and was loosely inspired by a column at The Gloss about fascinating forgotten women in history. People felt that concept was a little too open-ended, so I packaged it as a book about historical breakups, because everyone has had a breakup and can relate to Edith Wharton sending 300 letters to her ex-boyfriend. My there I published my second book about historical diseases, my third book was illustrated mostly because I was getting married and didn’t have the time to do a full one, and now my fourth book, a collection of humorous relationship advice from historical women, is coming out in October.
I also write a weekly column for Harper’s Bazaar about politics, which started after the 2016 election when everyone realized democracy was not going to be fine. We are living in a fortunate age when a lot of women magazines are hiring a political editor. So it’s been a real joy to get to do that.
What do you see as being the threads that unify your work?
For me it is all about women. I feel like women are incredibly overlooked in most of the history books I read, and bringing their stories to the forefront whenever I can is really important to me. When people tell me sexism doesn’t exist anymore it’s really laughable to me, when our Congress is two thirds male and we’ve never had a female President or VP. I want to focus on women’s stories when writing for Harper’s Bazaar, and in my books, I focus on women’s history.
Did your sense of purpose change at all when Trump got elected?
Yes, absolutely. It’s when I started writing about politics. Up until the 2016 election I was one of those people who would have said I just don’t care that much about politics. I am a Democrat and my family are conservative, so I avoided talking about that with them whenever possible. When Barack Obama was president he was a smart man who I trusted to do a good job, then when the 2016 election came around I remember thinking “I don’t need to worry about this, Hillary has got it in the bag,” then the megalomaniacal narcissist come to power and made me question everything I thought I knew about this country. It made me examine the ways women were historically discriminated against in politics, and once you pull that curtain back you can never not unsee it. I hope in the future we again have a President, Congress, and Supreme Court that I think is smart and noble, but I don’t think there will ever be a time where I’m not reading, thinking and worried about it again .
One of the things that has always impressed me about you is your incredible work ethic: four books in four years, plus your column, and a huge presence on Twitter. How do you get it all done?
I treat it like a job. I know there are some writers who only write when the muse moves them, some of whom produce much more beautiful books than I ever will. But I go to the gym in the ,orning, then sit down and write until 6pm at night. Kind of like every other job does. I make sure I write at least 500 words a day. Before I got married it was 1000, but I live with a person now and I like spending time with him. Some days it comes really easily and I knock off early and I got to the movies, some days it takes the entire day. It also helps to have an idea of what specifically I want to write on a specific day.
You have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter. What’s that like?
I literally never look at my Twitter by myself anymore because there were too many death threats. It’s only on my husband’s phone now. He has the login, and if I want to say something, I send it to him and he posts it for me. There were too many days when he would come home and I would say “This person wrote ‘I’m going to murder you bitch,’ and I looked them up on Google and I don’t think they’re serious but…”
Once you pass 50K followers you need to come up with a plan to stay away from it because otherwise you can be on Twitter the entire day. You never don’t have notifications. People are always talking to you, even if most of the things they’re saying things that are nice and smart and funny. I do think the smartest thing you can do at that point is give access to someone else and let them go through and block things for you. When you’re reading someone saying crazy stuff about your best friend, those people sound crazy, but if it’s just you alone looking at the screen at 2am, it’s really bad.
Twitter can be a lot. But it’s also funny stories about how a llama has escaped and is on the highway, it’s how I’ve gotten some of my jobs, and it’s also indirectly how I met my husband.
Jennifer Wright will be in conversation with Powerbitches founder Rachel Hills at our next Salon event, on June 25. Click here for more information and to secure your tickets.