Episode 35: Amelia Lester

Amelia Lester is the editor of Good Weekend.

Penmanship podcast episode 35: Amelia Lester, interviewed by Andrew McMillen. Published in March 2017.

For the first episode of 2017, I could think of few more qualified guests than Amelia Lester. Penmanship is all about exploring the gritty details of how to build a life around working with words, and Amelia has done just that at the very highest level of magazine publishing. After graduating from Harvard University, she worked at a literary agency for a year and then achieved her dream of working at The New Yorker, which has long been regarded as one of the leading homes for longform journalism in the English-speaking world. Amelia stayed there for ten years in various editorial roles before returning to her home country to take the reins at Good Weekend, a magazine she loved to read while growing up in Australia.

In early March, I met with Amelia at the Fairfax Media building in Sydney. I have written for Good Weekend since 2014, and for Amelia since October, so this episode marks the second time I’ve interviewed a current editor of mine on Penmanship, following last year’s chat with Erik Jensen of The Saturday Paper. My conversation with Amelia touches on what makes a great magazine feature story; her philosophy about how editors should manage their schedules to spend less time at the desk, and more time out in the world; how she began working at The New Yorker as a fact-checker and then became Managing Editor by the time she was 26; why manners are important in journalism; how she learnt to manage her email inbox, and why she is leaving Good Weekend in April after a little over a year in the role.

Amelia Lester is the editor of Good Weekend, the Saturday magazine of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. Amelia grew up in Sydney and graduated from Harvard with a BA in English and American Literature and Language. She spent ten years at The New Yorker, where she was first a fact-checker and was appointed managing editor at the age of 26. Later on she relaunched the Goings On About Town section of the magazine, served as executive editor of newyorker.com, and wrote the “Tables for Two” restaurants column. In between she was also a features editor at The Paris Review, a New York literary quarterly. Amelia has worked at Good Weekend, Australia’s premier home of long form journalism, since February 2016, and relaunched the magazine in June of that year. She appears regularly on television and radio as a political commentator and is a board member of the Sydney Writers Festival.

Amelia Lester on Twitter: @ThatAmelia

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Timeline: 

3.30 Good Weekend is produced on a ten-day lead time, and Wednesday is the final day of its production cycle. On a typical Tuesday, Amelia is usually reading pieces that have already been laid out in the magazine

5.30 Amelia says that her particular skillset is in figuring out the mix of stories each week, and in working on a story from the original idea conception through to its execution: how it’s presented in the magazine, and how the story is sold

6.00 Amelia says that Good Weekend‘s art director, Tim Beor, is “the finest art director I’ve ever worked with; he’s an astonishingly talented individual”

7.30 In Amelia’s opinion, a great magazine story requires figuring out how to keep someone reading. “I notice increasingly that people talk about longform [journalism] as if it’s like eating your vegetables […] Like it’s the broccoli that keeps you feeling like you’re reading a quality product”

9.00 “I’m constantly having to remind people that longform is just really fascinating stories. They need to be told at length, because that’s how much space they need”

9.30 “Part of what is important to make a story sing at length is that you need details, and you need characters […] If you’ve got the details and the characters, then you’ve got the makings of a story that sings”

11.00 Amelia thinks that it’s a useful discipline for writers starting out to avoid using the personal pronoun, ‘I’

11.30 “It’s important to learn how to tell the story without yourself, and then once you can do that, maybe inject a little of yourself into it”

12.00 As an example of using the personal pronoun at length, Amelia thinks that Konrad Marshall’s cover story from September 2016, ‘Me, Inc.‘, would have been “a disaster” in the hands of a lesser writer; she also mentions his October cover story ‘Mud, Sweat and Gears‘, where Konrad went to a Ute Muster and had a “muddy, unpleasant time”, in this context

13.00 Amelia receives a lot of pitches from people who want to tell their own story. “That’s fine, but the problem is, at three or four thousand words, if you’re not used to writing at length, you’re likely not going to be able to tell your story in a way that gets someone through to the end”

14.00 The longest story that Amelia has run at Good Weekend is about 5,000 words, though she has been interested more generally in running “fewer, longer” stories

15.00 Amelia says that length has nothing to do with the quality of the writer, the quality of the assignment, or the subject. For instance, one of her favourite profiles in the last year was by Melissa Fyfe, ‘The Bill Henson Bubble‘, where she wrote about the controversial photographer Bill Henson

16.30 “That was about 3,200 words, I think. The reason it was 3,200 words is because it was partially dependent on access […] but partially dependent on the way she told the story. It was an encounter with a very interesting and high profile artist, with some thoughtful context around that encounter. That’s 3,200 words”

17.30 To contrast that example, Amelia mentions a recent cover story by Jane Cadzow, ‘Ingrid Bishop’s campaign to release the man convicted of killing her son‘. “That was a pretty extraordinary story when I first heard about it, but I like to keep an open mind about length […] It turned into a profile of this mother. On the surface, this man’s mother is not as ‘famous’ as Bill Henson […] But it turned out to be a 5,000 word piece”

20.00 Each week, Amelia has sought to give Good Weekend‘s readers “unexpected perspectives on Australia, and Australians”; she cites Danielle Moylan’s profile of Eddie Ayres (‘Why Emma Ayres became Eddie Ayres‘) and Matthew Knott’s profile of George Christensen (‘Why it’s time to take George Christensen seriously‘) as examples

21.00 “In both those cases, the writer had never written a longform piece before. Both of them were very experienced news reporters; both of them approached me with the story idea, and to be honest, I was skeptical, because it’s really hard to tell a story at length”

23.00 At Good Weekend, Amelia has access to “some of the most extraordinary photographers”, including Andrew Meares, Andrew Quilty, Nic Walker and Tim Bauer

24.00 Amelia cites Tim Elliott’s recent story, ‘The Audacity Of Hope‘, as an example of a great cover story. “Anything Tim Elliott writes is going to be beautiful, lyrical, astute and funny – which is a pretty rare combination […] He has this ability to never lose his light touch, which is really important when you’re writing about some pretty upsetting things”

26.30 “That’s the beauty of working with such talented art directors and photographers: my decision about what to put on the cover is pretty much purely editorial. It’s not generally visual, in the sense that I don’t have to think, ‘Well, I can’t put that on the cover because it’s not visual enough'”

27.00 Tim Beor won Designer of the Year at the Australian Magazine Award’s for his work on Good Weekend in 2016, and Amelia cites his cover for a story by Stephanie Wood – “Who is also an extraordinary writer because she is an incredibly sensitive observer; she sees everything about people” – about how she is “childless by chance” (‘Missing Children‘) as one of Tim Beor’s finest works

29.00 Amelia knows that writing is a “really difficult thing, and when someone has written a piece, it can feel incredibly vulnerable and scary to send it off to the editor”

29.30 Amelia says she’s not a workaholic, and she doesn’t want to work “all the hours in the week. I actually don’t think that serves me as an editor, anyway. I think it’s really important that editors live lives, and consume lots of content and culture, and talk to lots of people. I wouldn’t want to be just hunched over a desk ’til all hours”

30.30 Amelia’s philosophy is that, for editors, “it’s better to be interested, than interesting”

31.00 On reading a draft for the first time, Amelia tries to read it all the way through, but she tries to observe how she’s feeling all the way through; if she’s distracted by a text message, “that’s a sign that a piece needs work”

32.30 Amelia thinks that a good magazine has to be “reflective of the vision of its editor, and if my bosses don’t like the vision, they can get rid of me. But all I can do is put out what I think is interesting, and that to me creates a coherent, exciting product”

33.30 “We’re not a charity. We’re meant to be putting out a magazine that people want to read. So I’m a big fan of mixing high and low [culture]”; for instance, Amelia has on her desk right now a copy of Gwyneth Paltrow’s new “holistic health handbook”, as well as a book looking at Helen Garner’s writing career

35.00 Amelia says that every editor has “blind spots”, and that all she can do is put out a magazine that she finds interesting – which she learned from David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker

37.00 Amelia was born in Paris, and her parents are economists. She was raised in Sydney, went to North Sydney Girls’ High School, and applied to study at Harvard University on a whim: “I’m very whim-driven”

37.30 In 2005, Amelia had a fellowship for Harvard Magazine to write from the perspective of an undergraduate; this was Amelia’s first paid journalism, for a column called ‘The Undergraduate

38.30 One of Amelia’s columns for Harvard Magazine, about her difficulty in finding employment (‘Working Out‘), led to her getting a job at literary firm The Wylie Agency in 2005

40.00 Amelia worked as Andrew Wylie’s assistant, writing emails to publishers and editors, chasing up deals, and working out how to get the best deals for Wylie’s writers; Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth were regular callers

42.00 All of the reading that Amelia did at The Wylie Agency was related to her work in publishing, because she didn’t get time to read manuscripts during office hours

43.30 Amelia loved The New Yorker since reading an article by David Grann in 2005, ‘The Lost City Of Z‘, which would later become the basis for his book of the same name. “I couldn’t believe that there was a magazine that had sent a writer off for months to track a lost civilisation in South America, in the jungle. It just blew my mind. I desperately wanted to work there”

44.30 It was a race against the clock to get a job there, because Amelia’s visa was running out, and typically The New Yorker‘s fact-checkers are more advanced in their careers and know at least one other language

46.30 The first piece that Amelia checked for The New Yorker was a comment piece; she recalls the page proof coming to her desk, and “I couldn’t believe […] I was putting marks on a page that would end up in the magazine”

47.30 Every word in the magazine is agonised over by five or six people; there’s a whole system whereby a single piece of paper is routed through these people for changes, until it gets to a ‘closing meeting’, where each ‘stakeholder’ in the piece sit around a table and say their piece on each page before it goes to the printer

48.00 There were 15 fact-checkers employed at The New Yorker when Amelia started there, which later expanded to 17 when the website was relaunched

50.30 In the job, Amelia had to get over her fear of calling people on the phone: she found it “really scary” to call someone up and ask them a question while checking a piece

51.00 “Manners are very important in journalism. I think it’s very important to show respect to everyone with whom you come into contact, because we as practitioners of the craft do not understand how terrifying it is to see your name in print, or in a story”

52.30 “Being a fact-checker is the most self-righteous, sanctimonious position to be in, because you say, ‘I’m on the side of truth on this […] I just want to figure out what the actual truth of this situation is'”

53.30 Amelia describes The New Yorker‘s editor since 1999, David Remnick, as “the most magnificent writer, editor and boss […] He’s just a brilliant reporter because he gets you to open up, and to share your enthusiasms and your interests”

55.30 In 2009, The New Yorker was advertising for a Managing Editor job, and Amelia’s family encouraged her to go for it. She was 26 at the time, so Amelia sent David Remnick a polite email to ask if he’d consider her

57.00 “David likes ‘hungry people’, as he would put it; he likes people who are really going to throw themselves into it”

59.00 Amelia worked as Managing Editor for four years, and she struggles to recall an average week in the job, because the weekly publication was very responsive to the news, and even broke news, under David Remnick’s editorship

60.00 “If you did have a big news story break, then your whole week would become about that news story”, such as Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, or the Japanese earthquake and tsunami

61.00 As Managing Editor, Amelia was responsible for thinking about the next six months’ worth of magazine issues, in addition to overseeing the weekly production cycle

62.30 The magazine does occasionally take story pitches from freelancers, but newyorker.com is now typically the gateway into the magazine, because editors will want to see evidence of the reporter’s work, “and that’s always better if it comes from newyorker.com

63.00 While working as Managing Editor, Amelia also began writing ‘Tables For Two‘ columns in the magazine, which is “not telling you where to eat or what to order; it’s creating a sense of being there, in New York, having a meal. Restaurants in New York are where life happens; it’s impossible to overstate their importance to people’s lives”

65.00 Amelia wrote these 450 word columns for three or four years, which she enjoyed very much: “I ate out every night; it was probably terrible for my cholesterol, but I was doing it anyway”

68.00 After Managing Editor, Amelia became Executive Online Editor of newyorker.com and oversaw the magazine’s relaunch of its website

70.30 Amelia says that Elements, the science and technology blog edited by Anthony Lydgate, is “a perfect example of what newyorker.com should be”

72.00 Amelia introduced the ‘Minutes With’ weekly column to Good Weekend, which is about watching someone really carefully and writing about what you see: “Amanda Hooton is just the master of [writing the ‘Minutes With’ columns]”

72.30 During her time at The New Yorker, there were three occasions where she wrote about Australia: about Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech in 2012, Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize win in 2014, and Tony Abbott being removed as Prime Minister in 2015

74.30 While in New York, Amelia read smh.com.au every day; she knew she wanted to come back to Australia at some point, so “it was important to me to keep that connection”

75.00 Amelia’s transition from The New Yorker to Good Weekend allowed her to put out a magazine that was “exactly reflective of my own interests; so what’s not to like?”

75.30 Under her editorship, Good Weekend re-hired several staff writers; previously, the magazine had relied on a pool of contributors

77.00 Amelia says she “wasn’t that interested in scoping out the competition”, because she had a good idea of what she wanted Good Weekend to be, having read it while growing up in Sydney

78.00 “Rather than reading the competition, I think it is very important for a magazine editor to immerse his or herself in the news”

79.30 Amelia learned how to manage her email inbox and correspondence while working at The Wylie Agency, which has flowed through to her job as editor of Good Weekend

82.30 “Writing is hard, and I really try and show respect to writers in the work that they’re doing; I like to take the time to write back to them politely”

83.30 Amelia is leaving Good Weekend in April 2017 and moving to Japan, because her husband-to-be is a doctor in the US Navy and will be stationed there. “I’ve always wanted to have adventures, and to live a big, interesting life – just like magazines should be big and interesting […] So I am seizing this opportunity for adventure, and I’ve got a few projects already lined up”

 

1 comment… add one
  • Adam

    What a great find this website is! Andrew McMillen’s interview with Amelia Lester is superb. He hits the subterranean layers of Lester’s life as an editor with Good Weekend, and as a fact checker with The New Yorker magazine. Listen carefully and one can learn a lot about the craft of writing. Ten out of ten. Thanks, Andrew.

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