The Local New Yorker
BY Dorothy Rankin
Lauren Collins writes for
Lauren Collins writes forThe New Yorker the weekly magazine acclaimed for its excellence in reporting literary vision incisive commentary and famous single panel cartoons.
Bright-eyed attractive and exceptionally gracious Collins seems made for success. Though it’s a long way from her childhood home on Towles Road off Greenville Loop Road to The New Yorker offices in Times Square she found the progression only natural.
ollins’ mother spent her youth outside Philadelphia and her father born in Manhattan grew up on Long Island. Her parents met at Duke University and eventually moved to Wilmington but they maintained their ties to the Northeast. Collins’ relatives often lived in New York which gave her early access to the city. “It was kind of a revolving door of my mother’s younger siblings. She had one brother who lived there for quite a while ” Collins remembers “and we would go visit him. He was great. He would very unselfishly do the carriage ride and Empire State Building for the millionth time and always really rolled out the red carpet for us.”
Collins’ exposure to The New Yorker also came early. She remembers seeing it at home as a child. “It was part of the furniture in our household. I always loved the magazine.”
The route she took to join the magazine’s staff though was unusual. “My father is a lawyer and I always worked for him in the summers and really liked that ” Collins explains. “So I had an internship the summer after my junior year in college. I worked for Legal Aid which is the Public Defender in New York as an investigator. I don’t know how I came up with this ” she laughs. “I convinced my parents it would be a great educational opportunity.”
Though she had visited New York she had not lived there before the internship. “But it was a great orientation because our only compensation was an unlimited Metro card — for the subway.” Collins was an evidence gatherer. Every day she would get an address in one of the five boroughs locate it on a big map in the office and set out. “It was all about going and knocking on someone’s door.” She’d conduct her interview take the information back to the office and work out how the law applied to her findings.
Soon she discovered that she cared less about the legal aspects than the stories and the interviews so she decided “maybe I should just try being a reporter or a writer.”
She graduated from Princeton — which she regards as “the most Southern of the Northern schools” — with a degree in English but she admits she didn’t really set out to be a writer. “I thought ‘I’ll just try working at a magazine for a year.’ I figured I’d give it a try and go from there.”
She started out as an editorial assistant at Vogue. “[It was] sort of The Devil Wears Prada — without the Devil ” Collins smiles. “I liked it there a lot. It was very much a coffee getting job but I got to write headlines and captions and things like that.” Writing short pieces soon followed and then came The New Yorker job. “[Both magazines] are owned by the same company so with a little internal diplomacy I was able to go to The New Yorker.”
She began as an editorial assistant in the “Talk of the Town” department. She was coming up with ideas for stories when “finally someone said ‘Hey why don’t you write it yourself?’” So she did. Her pieces for “Talk of the Town” have covered a wide variety of subjects including a visit to New York by a group of aspiring newscasters from Dubai Women’s College an eminent-domain fight over a golf course on Long Island New York City’s proposed ban on trans fats and a teenage Katrina refugee now in Brooklyn.
Collins’ first long piece for The New Yorker was about Ervin Rosenfeld a New York furrier who made all the fur coats for the hip-hop stars. She enjoyed the local nature of the piece (his office was just 15 blocks down the street from her office) as well as the individual. “Not exactly Abu Ghraib writing but it was a good thing to do ” Collins says. “He was a funny guy.”
For her next contribution she traveled to London to write about the mysterious graffiti artist known as Banksy. An extensive profile of Donatella Versace followed — and took almost a year to complete. “I went to Los Angeles and Milan a couple of times for the Donatella story ” Collins says. She considers travel one of the advantages of her job. “Any way I can get to go on a trip somewhere is worth it.”
Though she often encounters celebrities she doesn’t find it intimidating to talk to her subjects. “I never get too freaked out as long as I’m prepared. You have to let the conversation go where it will but then you have to have a couple of safety questions.” She pauses then smiles. “Great reporters say that silence can yield all these telling moments and revelations but I think it’s a little too awkward sometimes especially for someone raised in the South. You hate to let someone squirm for too long.”
Collins regards her work as “definitely a privilege ” and agrees that a magazine of the stature of The New Yorker grants her unusual access. “For the most part these are people who by definition are compelling in one way or another. It’s a treat to be around interesting people.” If there’s a particular challenge in her work Collins says it’s “to stay out of the way and not be a pest when you want to let the action unfold without the reporter being a participant in it. The biggest skill which isn’t much of one is trying to blend into the wall. It helps to be 5 feet tall.”
Collins considers herself a generalist which makes her job an excellent fit. “I find myself writing about the arts a lot ” she says. “I guess under the general umbrella of culture.” But she’s willing to tackle almost anything from the profile of an Iranian-American video artist to a spate of pigeon abductions in Manhattan.
Living in New York suits her. “I loved New York from the second I got there ” Collins says. Though she considers returning to live in the South “less and less ” she’s quick to add “I really miss it. I love coming home.” And she confides that “I have my rounds ” when she is in town. Her regular routine on visits home always includes Flip’s Bar-B-Que. “I have to have Flip’s.” She also visits Baja Grill the Trolley Stop and at least one meal features Wrightsville Beach’s Roberts Market chicken salad. Her homecoming schedule also features an activity that might surprise some locals since Collins resides in New York: She shops — usually at Beanie + Cecil. “Actually this is completely true. I do so much more shopping in Wilmington than I ever do in New York.”
As for what comes next Collins doesn’t have a master plan but she does have some thoughts. “I’m almost positive I’m not a fiction writer. I don’t really think I have the imagination for that.” She enjoyed the opportunity “to flex some different muscles” when her editor at The New Yorker asked her to contribute to a recent book of essays. “I think at some point I’d like to try some longer forms of nonfiction ” she says.
She dreams about living abroad someday but she’s in no hurry. “I really like what I’m doing ” Collins says with a smile. It’s hard to imagine a better definition of success.
New in The New Yorker by Lauren Collins
For the March 12 2008 issue of The New Yorker Lauren wrote The Other Obama: Michelle Obama and the politics of candor. This wonderfully written profile of the strong accomplished opinionated and outspoken wife of presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama details the up-close and personal time Lauren spent with Mrs. Obama and her family associates and friends in Chicago and on the campaign trail. All topics — personal professional political — are covered in Lauren’s eminently readable style. The result of pairing such a powerful public woman with a talented and thoughtful writer is a don’t-miss story about a fascinating and complex woman at a unique and pointed time in American history. To read The Other Obama visit www.newyorker.com.