A writer’s journey from journalism to fiction to television

One of the best books I read last year was the pungent novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Studded with surgical social perceptions, mordant laughs and vibrating relevance, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” If you’re married, or divorced, beware: It has teeth.


I attended a recent discussion and Q&A with Brodesser-Akner, led by one of her editors at The New York Times Magazine and complemented by a full house of admiring readers. The discursive confab was funny, at times boisterous, always sharp.  

The author is well-known for her smart and sassy celebrity profiles in the NYT Magazine. Among her most famous, and infamous, subjects are Bradley Cooper, Tom Hanks and Gwyneth Paltrow. Some interviewees have not been taken by her resulting articles, but, as a one-time celebrity profiler, I had to applaud when she said that she couldn’t care less what her subjects think of what she’s written about them; she cares only what her editors and her readers think. Truth first, feelings second. Or even sixth. 

Brodesser-Akner’s novel — a smash bestseller, award-winner and named a best book of 2019 by numerous publications — is being turned into a TV series for FX that she is writing with utmost fidelity to the source, she says.

With a showy, dimply smile, big laugh and swift, expansive wit, Brodesser-Akner regaled some 100 fans, chatting about her book’s characters and motivations, responses to the novel, the jump from journalism to fiction, family, parenthood, marriage and TV writing.

Some snippets:

 — “I always just wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to make my money writing. I went to film school because I wanted to be a writer and that program had no math or science requirements, which fit my educational criteria. I fell into journalism when I found out after college that they didn’t just hire you to write screenplays. I looked in The New York Times, which used to have a robust jobs section, and there was a job there for a magazine called Soaps In Depth. And I got a job there. A year later, because of my tremendous productivity and my rapport with my subjects [she laughs], I was approached by a larger soap opera magazine.” [From there, she contracted with GQ and the Times.]

About writing personality and celebrity profiles: “You come in with the stakes being pretty low. Profiles have been so done to death that all you have to do is make sure they’re true, and then you can experiment with them. It’s like what they say about chefs and roast chicken: When chefs all get together they make for each other roast chicken, because that’s the thing you’re supposed to show from this place of plainness what you can do with it. And that’s how I think of profiles: the roast chicken of journalism.” 


On midlife, a looming theme in the novel: “Midlife is pretty shocking. I did not know how confusing it would be at this particular age. It’s like a second adolescence. But at least when I was an adolescent I thought I knew what I was doing. Now I know enough to know that I don’t. And there’s the constant strains of contentment and being distraught being in line with each other. It’s the way I feel about the suburbs. I can walk down the block and think, ‘This is beautiful. Wait, what kind of person finds this beautiful?’ That’s middle-age for me.” 

About turning “Fleishman is in Trouble” into a nine-episode TV series: “I am writing it now, and it is very hard to write television. They want it very faithful to the book, at least for the first season. They talk about a second season because that’s all they can do. That’s all TV executives do. They’re sharks; they can only swim forward. They want it to mimic the book as much as possible, which sounds easy and it is not. What’s hard about it is if you think about what my specific skills are — when there is no story, I can still write a story. I came to prominence on a story about Nicki Minaj in which I went to interview her and she remained asleep for the duration. I wrote 6,000 words about it. It was a rollercoaster.”

On going from magazine to fiction writing: “Magazine to fiction writing was amazing. Because the book was like a profile — that’s how I kept it in my head, it’s just a long profile that I’m making up. The hardest part of it was, whereas I think I’m a decent observer of people, to make people up and then have to observe them is to kind of deny what is so amazing about people, which is that they always contradict themselves and they’re unpredictable. Whereas creating something is to make up a series of predictable things.” 

“When I decided to write (the novel), I had this gut feeling of: ‘Oh, this is the one.’”

5 best movies of the year (so far)

  1. “Eighth Grade” — Her chin and forehead dappled with islands of acne, 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy with ruffled blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and slightly bucky, will break your heart. Played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. But as some have noted, the movie is not about geezers and their times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology. It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our times, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow stronger after each posting. This rumpled, dimpled film is a marvel to behold, and one from which to learn.

2. “The Rider” — Chloé Zhao’s lo-fi drama moves at a painstaking pace, the clip of everyday life in action. But little is everyday here: Twenty-something Brady (newcomer Brady Jandreau) is a local rock star of rodeo bronc riding whose skull, we see in the opening shots, is stapled shut and oozing blood. An accident in the ring has left him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the rodeo, the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. The film is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. Easily the most moving film of the year, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. It won Best Feature at the prestigious Gotham Awards this week.

3. “A Star is Born” — Call me a sap but I fell hard for this high-sheen remake of a remake of a remake (of, yup, a remake) about a pair of star-crossed musicians working on love amid the ruthless, sometimes lethal brambles of showbiz. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga unswervingly possess their crooning characters, Jack and Ally, with explosive energy and heart-searing nuance. It’s a simple tale about mutual respect, and its flip-side jealousy, and how drugs can neuter talent and well-oiled ambition can nurture it. Cooper, whose steely direction wrests high drama from the grunge and glamor, sings and gives one of his finest performances. Lady Gaga is a blazing revelation. The picture boasts genuinely solid songs, including the hit “Shallow,” a soaring paean to the thrill, and fragility, of love.

4. First Reformed” — The underrated Ethan Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself. Veteran writer-director Paul Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Austere and bruised, this is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one. (Hawke won Best Actor at the Gotham Awards.)

5. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly TV host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied-piper of cheering children across the land. He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs and soaring imagination. Not a scintilla of that hagiographic image is tarred in this illuminating, touching documentary that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked. (Gotham Audience Award winner.)

Of course there’s a slew of buzzed-about movies I haven’t seen yet that might still make the list: “Roma, “The Sisters Brothers, “Mission: Impossible — Fallout, “The Favourite,” “Widows,” “Blaze,” “I Am Not a Witch, “The House That Jack Built” and more.

Then there are the acclaimed movies that left me limp: “Black Panther,” “Leave No Trace,” “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Mandy,” “Shirkers,” “Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “You Were Never Really Here,” “Hereditary,” “Private Life.

And there are films I enjoyed perfectly well, like Julian Schnabel’s heady portrait of van Gogh “At Eternity’s Gate, the funny-sad triplets doc “Three Identical Strangers, the melancholy horse saga “Lean on Pete,”  the anthropomorphic, Wes Andersonian antics of “Paddington 2” and the asphyxiating thriller “A Quiet Place.

“A Quiet Place”