Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Interview: Cary Tennis, Salon.com Advice Columnist – Part I

Cary Tennis is Salon.com’s resident advice columnist. Since You Asked… is a bastion for those looking for an open ear, a story or aside that isn’t afraid to drop in a literary or poetic allusion or two, and advice that doesn’t issue edicts from On High (or Mt. Olympus, as Cary himself would say) but seeks to roll back the dense fog of confusion that surrounds troubled minds.

Check out a recent edition of Since You Asked… here.

What follows is the first part of our conversation. Look for more soon.


Eric Berlin: Can you describe what Since You Asked… is all about?

Cary Tennis: It’s an advice column. It started when Garrison Keiler was writing a column for Salon in the books section. And he had to resign, so we were looking for a replacement and it was right around the time of 9/11. I had been a copy editor at Salon, and I had read all of Garrison Keiler’s columns, and I thought that what he was doing was really great and I had a sort of feel for the voice.

It was the first time I had seen someone take a literary approach to an advice column. After weeks and weeks, they hadn’t found anybody. I said, “Why don’t you give me the sample questions and let me take a shot?”

So they liked it, and they offered me the job.

In general, as you took on the job, what’s your chief aim when give people advice?

My chief aim is to connect with the person. I think what makes that work is my experience in Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s where the voice comes from of just being able to hear somebody’s predicament to listen, to respond without coming down from, like, Mt. Olympus. To respond as another person.

That’s where I think I get the permission to just respond. I don’t feel responsible – I know the limits of my power. And so I feel free to just respond in a real emotional and empathic way, or a poetic way.

What do you think is so appealing to the reader in reading about other people’s loves and loss and struggles?

I don’t think we talk to each other very honestly, very much in our society. Something I find in the recovery movement is that you hear people pour out these tales. At first, it’s kind of shocking because there’s a lot of suffering and a lot of pain. But once you get used to it, it’s just a variety of human experiences.

And I think what you get in the column is these real intimate, vivid glimpses of what people are really like. And we just don’t get that very much in day-to-day life.

You’ve been talking recently in your column about bringing more honesty and more bluntness back into American dialogue. Is that a direction that you see yourself going in?

I hope so. I found myself wavering between kind of a radical kindness and acceptance and a desire to say that what someone is saying is really crazy, or that we should just tell people, “You’re really fucked up!”

I think you can err in both directions, thinking that your opinion really matters all that much.

Do you think there’s some kind of breakdown in American society going on – in the family perhaps – or has this stuff been going on all along and we’re just more out in the open about it now?

[In mock booming voice] Well, I don’t know, Eric! [laughs]

Can you go up on Mt. Olympus for me?

I see some trends, but I’m not big on seeing trends. I’m real big on the individual one-to-one connection. And so my answers vary. If I get a feeling that someone needs a firm statement, I’ll just get a feeling and I’ll sort of go that way. For other people, they just need someone to listen to them and validate them.

Have you ever formed any kind of relationship that extended beyond the question that was originally submitted?

Correspondence does develop that persists, and some people I’ve become sort of friends with. They’ll write and I’ll write back, or I’ll hear about them.

People frequently write back and say, “I appreciate what you said.” People also write questions to me, and I’ll respond directly to them. But people also write to me about questions I answer for other people and say, “That helped me out a lot – I was in a similar situation.”

What’s the weirdest question that you’ve ever been asked?

Oh man, I’ve gotten some doozies lately! One was a woman who has been going out with a guy for five years, and she still didn’t know where he lived. She said she’d never really been to his house – that one really stirred people up.

There was a guy whose girlfriend wanted him to show his penis to her daughter so she’d know what one looked like.

I remember that one. That one stayed with me for quite some time.

That’s the kind of one that will stick with you!

Have you ever had a question where you answered it, and based upon the advice that you gave or didn’t give, it gave you trouble sleeping at night or troubled you for a while afterward?

Yeah, questions trouble me. People who are suicidal or who are in deep emotional pain. They tend to stick with me. Some people are in very dark situations – people who have been abused. They do stick with me, and I lie awake and I think about these people.

Generally, what happens is that the more I think about a person, they tend to become real to me. And I begin to feel love for them. A lot of times it’s a very positive experience.

How do you go about choosing the questions that you’ll answer, and do you think about creating a balance between helping people and thinking about a readership who is on one level entertained, and on another level informed?

That’s a really good question, Eric. There are questions that are entertaining – sometimes I think if a question isn’t entertaining enough, it might not run. And I wonder if people are making their questions entertaining enough so that it’ll run.

They’re trying to sell you.

Yeah. I’m a journalist, and it’s part of an entertainment medium.

I just feel that everyone’s problems are important to them. So it’s kind of unfortunate if your problem was similar to one that was dealt with last month or if it’s a very common problem, I’m tired of saying the same thing.

Walk me through your production schedule, if you will. How does each column come into being?

The way it works now is that once or twice a week, I’ll gather up all the letters that have questions in them. And it’ll come out to 18,000 to 20,000 words that I go through and clean up. Then there’s sort of a drafting phase. I’ll go through them and look for something that clicks. And if I find myself writing, I know that’s a live one. And if I find myself confused and not getting anywhere, sometimes I’ll just pass over those. The ones that are really sensational or intriguing, I move to the top.

I've always wondered about how much editing went into the actual submission process, and how much cleaning up goes on to make it publishable.

Grammar, spelling, punctuation, some shortening. That’s another criterion: if a letter’s super long, it’s a lot of work to shorten it.

Another thing I’ve always wondered about with advice columns in general: do people tend to make up their own cute little nickname, or does an editor do that? How does that work?

A lot of people do. [laughs] They’ll say, “Sign me, ‘Lonely in Texas,’” or whatever. But if they don’t, I make it up. It’s kind of dumb – it really is. But you’ve got to have something, and it’s got to be anonymous.

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