Taffy Brodesser-Akner: ‘It’s very hard to be the least important person in the room’

Olivia Petter

Taffy Brodesser-Akner would like to take this opportunity to come out officially as Tom Hiddleston’s “mystery brunette”. In January 2017, paparazzi snaps of the American journalist with the British actor outside his north London home wound up in a UK tabloid. The article, headlined “Moving Swift-ly on?”, referenced the duo’s “cosy chat” and described Brodesser-Akner as “the brunette who couldn’t quite believe her luck”. They were right.

“I was so excited,” she recalls. “I was the 40-year-old mother living in the suburbs and I got to be a mystery brunette!” Brodesser-Akner had in fact been interviewing Hiddleston for a profile in GQ, where she worked as a contributing writer. It turned out that after spending two days together discussing success, heartbreak and spaghetti Bolognese, the two got along well enough to permit a goodbye hug. After the photos came out, The Night Manager star phoned Brodesser-Akner to apologise for “the hullabaloo” and to placate her husband, whom he hoped was not offended. “I said, ‘Tom, this has been the best week of our lives, you should try to enjoy this more.’”

Brodesser-Akner might not be known to the British tabloids – she remains unidentified in the article – but the 43-year-old is one of the most prolific journalists in America, having won awards for her work in GQ and the New York Times Magazine, where she is currently employed. The Brooklyn-born writer is renowned for her deft and astute profiles of some seriously famous stars: think Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicki Minaj and Bradley Cooper. But her job, like any other, has its obstacles. Minaj famously fell asleep mid-conversation, while Cooper spent his interview denying the concept of interviews. “I won’t have any control, and it really isn’t a collaboration,” he begrudgingly told her.

“I feel sorry for celebrities,” says Brodesser-Akner. “It must be very hard to be written about and constantly be obligated to talk about yourself.” The irony, of course, is that the tables have now turned. Brodesser-Akner and I are here to discuss her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, and she’s finding the process a bit strange. “Doing publicity for my book is the first time I’ve ever been interviewed. I didn’t know it would be like this, I feel powerless.” What does she make of the journalists who’ve interviewed her so far? “I’m so impressed at how they stick to their questions,” she enthuses. “I’m not like that at all, I don’t go in with a lot of questions. I just listen and make conversation.” I can’t tell if that was an answer or an instruction.

Rather than the celebrity exposé that Brodesser-Akner’s fans might have expected, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a shrewd meditation on marriage and middle age. The plot follows 41-year-old Toby Fleishman, a morally dubious hepatologist, recently separated from his wife, who seeks refuge via Tinder hook-ups and emoji innuendos. Then Rachel, his ex, goes missing, plunging the reader into a twisty, sophisticated narrative filled with humour and pathos.

“When a person goes missing, you get a sense of the vastness of the world,” Brodesser-Akner says of her narrative hook. “They could be anywhere, and I always liked that idea.” The majority of the novel is told from Toby’s point of view, which, in a culture that rewards authors like Liane Moriarty for documenting the female experience, might seem out of sync with the literary zeitgeist. But don’t let that fool you. “I wanted to write a story about a man,” Brodesser-Akner explains, “because I felt like it would be easier to understand a woman’s story if you understood how she was perceived by a man first.” She then implores me to “be discreet” when discussing the plot – another instruction? Perhaps she can’t help it.

Throughout the book, Toby repeatedly describes Rachel as “angry”. He paints her as an unloving and irritable wife who starts fights over nothing, and wears T-shirts with slogans like: “Any yoga I do is hot yoga”.

“Anger is such a taboo emotion,” says Brodesser-Akner. “These two characters are constantly accusing each other of being angry and then denying their own anger, passing it off as either sadness or frustration. Why can’t you just be angry? That is a really poignant question to me.”

It’s an issue that Brodesser-Akner feels is mostly faced by women, pointing to the gendering of words like “crazy” and “psycho”, which are seldom attributed to men. “Nobody’s asking men about their emotional state because nobody’s out to judge them,” she explains. “Women are only asked about their emotional state so we can be reduced to it. So that sucks.”

Brodesser-Akner speaks with a lively confidence. She makes candid points in very few words and laughs at her own jokes throughout our conversation. You’d think she’d been doing this for decades. But before she became the successful journalist she is today, her job was to help other people into the profession. From 2001 to 2007, she worked at media resources website Mediabistro, organising seminars taught by established writers to aspiring ones. Brodesser-Akner would sit in on all of them. “I don’t know if I would know how to do what it is that I’m doing without Mediabistro,” she says.

After the birth of her first child, which she has previously described as “traumatic” due to postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder, she felt compelled to write about issues that had affected her personally, from childbirth to body image. She started selling them to publications, and soon became known for her compelling first-person essays, published in Self, The New York Times and Cosmopolitan. “When I couldn’t think of one more thing to say about myself, I started writing about other people,” she explains of her career trajectory.

A journalist of Brodesser-Akner’s reputation is granted unparallelled access to the celebrities she interviews, usually spending an entire day, or even two, with them – “I generally refuse to do it otherwise.” Has she ever maintained a relationship with one of her subjects? “Very rarely. Sometimes they want to. But they only want to because I’m someone who showed up when and where they wanted, and asked them questions only about themselves. They didn’t have to hear about how my babysitter just quit or how my son is struggling with maths. It’s very hard, in the thing I do, to be the least important person in the room. I don’t know why I would continually sign up for that.”

Even if Brodesser-Akner did want to spend her weekends pandering to celebrity egos, there’d be little time to spare. She is already working on a second novel, Long Island Compromise. “It’s about wealth,” she tells me, choosing to withhold further details aside from the fact that “it’s due soon”. The mother-of-two is also co-writing a film for Amazon about Eric Hites, aka Fat Guy Across America, the 40-stone man who cycled 3,200 miles across the US to lose weight and win his wife back.

All this on top of a full-time role at the New York Times Magazine. But Brodesser-Akner rattles off her workload to me with such assured insouciance, you’d think she was talking about her supermarket shopping list. She works fast, I learn, and describes writing Fleishman Is in Trouble as “a pretty easy process”, one that took just six months. “It was hard, but I remember thinking [when I’d finished], ‘that can’t be it’.”

If Brodesser-Akner has one regret, it’s that she didn’t get started with her writing career earlier. “I was so lost in my twenties and made excuses for myself,” she says, recalling “dying from jealousy” when she watched Girls, which Lena Dunham wrote at the same age. “You don’t need life experience to become a writer,” she adds. “But it can be difficult because you have to ask yourself what the story you choose to tell says about you. At my age, I no longer care what people think about me, so it’s easier. But up to 10 years ago, I cared so much.”

When we move on to discuss her favourite celebrity subjects, she instantly mentions Gwyneth Paltrow (“my white whale for so long”) and praises her openness: “Nothing was off-limits.”

Next in her sights, she tells me, is Melania Trump. “I like to interview people who have been famous for a while, because by the time I get to them, there are inevitably misunderstandings they believe the general public has about who they are. And it’s very interesting to write a story about someone based on the what the world has wrong about them.” Though I want to probe her on this, to find out how she gets celebrities to open up to her with such ease, Brodesser-Akner interjects because she wants to give me one final instruction. “Don’t let anybody tell you that writing has to be tortured in order to be good,” she insists. “If you just sit down and write the next sentence, you’ll be fine.”

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (£18.99, Headline) comes out on 18 June