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Working with Words: Amelia Lester

Read Monday, 27 Feb 2017

Raised in Sydney and educated at Harvard, Amelia Lester is the former executive online editor at the New Yorker. She returned home last year to serve as the editor of Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine. As Amelia prepares to depart from that role, and for new adventures in Japan, she chatted with us about fact-checking Fat Joe and writing the second-ever article for ‘The Facebook’.

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Photo of Amelia Lester

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Depends how generously we’re defining publishing. As a kid I produced ‘newspapers’ and then in my teens published a ‘magazine’. At university I worked on the student newspaper. My big claim to fame is that I wrote the second-ever article on Facebook, or The Facebook as it was known then, and I still have the email exchange with Mark Zuckerberg to prove it.

What’s the best part of your job?

Editing a magazine is great because you get to work in a team towards the goal of making a beautiful, sumptuous, immersive product. It’s always exciting to open the first draft from a writer to see the particular way they have approached the subject, and then take those words to figure out, with the help of the art department and the subs, the best way to ‘sell’ the story on the page.

What’s the worst part of your job?

My writers tell me I am always asking them for specifics in my edits: What colour was it? Which TV show? How many floors up?

Budgets. Excel gives me hives.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Being at the helm of Good Weekend, a magazine I have loved since childhood, has been a genuinely thrilling experience. I especially enjoy working with dedicated staff writers, each of whom have their own distinct way of telling stories.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

When I started to write ‘Tables for Two’, a restaurant column in the New Yorker, I was told never to use ‘I’. That’s not to say the personal pronoun doesn’t have a place, because it does, but for a beginner like me, avoiding it was a useful discipline.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

My writers tell me I am always asking them for specifics in my edits. What colour was it? Which TV show? How many floors up? It must come from my fact-checking days. I once had to ask the rapper Fat Joe how much he weighed. (370 pounds, in October 2006, but apparently he’s lost weight since then.) Details make a story sing!

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’ve always been fascinated by politics, so perhaps I’d be living in Canberra. I’d need to learn how to drive though – I’ve successfully dodged acquiring most important life skills.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Not much one for solitary geniuses, I think spending time with other determined creative people can’t be bad.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read good books. I find the rhythms of whatever you’re reading tend to seep in – so be selective!

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I seem to more reliably finish books in hard copy than on the Kindle. As for magazines, there’s this great technology that’s bendable, never runs out of batteries, and can be read with one hand on public transport. You’ll never guess what it is …

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

The narrator of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, pretty clearly a fictional simulacrum of Nora Ephron. She was, by all accounts, an amazing chef and a great laugh, as well as the person who would have delivered the most exquisitely concise verdict on the early days of President Trump.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Impossible to say. But certainly my ten years at the New Yorker – in particular, exposure to its copy-editing practices, and the work of writers like Janet Malcolm – has led me to value clarity and simplicity. Never use a big word when a short one will do!


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