In the few times Janet Malcolm let other reporters interview her, she did what she could to keep herself safe.
“Doing this interview by email gives me a chance to think of answers to your questions,” Malcolm wrote to the Believer in 2004. “If we did it in person, I might just look at you in blank helplessness.” She invited a Paris Review interviewer over to her Gramercy Park apartment seven years later, but didn’t answer the questions until typing on her desktop Mac.
Malcolm, who died in 2021 at 86, was as attuned as anyone to the dangers—malice, betrayal, misunderstanding—of a tape recorder clicking on. The monster in her masterpiece, The Journalist and the Murderer, isn’t the man convicted of killing his family but the bestselling author he took to court for publishing a tell-all; what haunts The Silent Woman, her book about Sylvia Plath, isn’t the poet’s suicide or Ted Hughes but the couple’s biographers. To read Malcolm’s decades of work for the New Yorker is to be moved by the clarity of her journalism—and warned, again and again, that the form is no good.
There are few reporters you’d rather see on the other side—the wrong end—of a Q&A. That’s where we find her in Janet Malcolm: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, a compilation of her exchanges with critic Nan Goldberg for Salon in 2001, novelist Daphne Beal in the Believer, Canadian radio host Eleanor Wachtel in 2008, writer Katie Roiphe in the Paris Review, and the New York Times Book Review in 2019. At their best, the transcripts channel and help explain Malcolm’s mesmerizing journalism, only the tables are turned. Reading the interviews has the perverse quality of seeing a judge on trial or your analyst in therapy.
Often, though, it’s a polite book—one in Melville House’s series of “last” interviews with interesting people—that chooses the wrong times to go soft. Malcolm, who knew the subjects of journalism are always “astonished when they see the flash of the knife,” doesn’t even get nicked.
The friction that’s missing here is what electrifies not just Malcolm’s writing but the record of what happened when she was actually put on the hot seat. When, decades ago, the star of one of her books sued her for libel, taking her to the Supreme Court and then to two trials, Malcolm—in front of a jury—gave the moral accounting these interviews avoid.
What makes Malcolm’s reporting unusual, besides the trouble it caused her, is how much fun it is to be in her company on the page. She is cutting, wary, funny, and wise. Her style is what I wish I had instead of the chipper inner voice I’m stuck with. Nothing in Malcolm’s writing is dull or amiss unless she’s quoting somebody else. Her lines put me in mind of the painter Agnes Martin—everything so even and tight.
I like the way Beal puts it in the introduction to the Believer interview: “What grabs and re-grabs the reader in her writing is its deft commingling of sleuthing and contemplation,” she writes. “Reading Malcolm, one has the sensation of being in the presence of a mind constantly in action on several levels, mediating between external reality (one most often consisting of facts that are at odds with one another) and her own consciousness.”
For reporters, Malcolm offers even more than just a guidebook to craft. She’s a tuning fork whose pitch tells the rest of us when we’ve fallen flat or drifted sharp. That’s because of the clarity of her writing—“vanity, hypocrisy, pomposity, inanity, mediocrity” is in The Journalist and the Murderer with “tenderness, sensitivity, judgment, warmth” as well as “ambiguity, obscurity, doubt, disappointment, compromise, and accommodation”—and how in touch it is with what’s going on, how it comes together, and why it sometimes falls apart. When I read Malcolm I’m like Roiphe greeting her for their Paris Review interview: “Around her it is hard not to feel large, flashy, blowsy, theatrical, reckless.”
Malcolm was born Jana Klara Wienerová in Prague in July 1934. Five years later, after Hitler had marched through the city, her family escaped on one of the last civilian ships to America from Europe before the war. Her father became a successful New York psychiatrist—in these interviews she swears she “paid little attention to my father’s work” and that psychoanalysis “has had curiously little influence” on her style, but one can’t quite believe her. At the University of Michigan, she wrote for the newspaper, edited its humor magazine, and met her first husband. They both went on to write for the New Yorker, and after he died she married her editor, whose stepfather’s yeast fortune helped fund the magazine. It wasn’t until she gave up cigarettes in the late ’70s that Malcolm did her first long piece of journalism: “I figured that by the time I finished the reporting I would be ready to try writing without smoking.”
If you want Malcolm at her most rabbinical, there’s Reading Chekhov, her underrated and atmospheric meditation on the Russian genius from 2001. For momentum that crime writers would kill for, she has Iphigenia in Forest Hills, a 2011 thriller about an Orthodox Jewish woman on trial for murder. Her stories about psychotherapy have the sweet swing of sportswriting, and her work about the law, too, is riveting and deep. Malcolm’s ear and eye—and unusual sense of structure—are most dazzling in her writing about art, especially “Forty-one False Starts,” a portrait of the painter David Salle that begins again and again, and “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” a profile of the editor Ingrid Sischy that waits and waits to find her. The shapes of the pieces convey so much about their subjects that a reader can’t help but feel both are also about the machinery of journalism.
There are different forms of Malcolm on the page. The observant and sometimes cold journalist who asks her subjects unsettlingly short questions isn’t quite the same figure as the ingenious narrator whose essayistic contemplation radiates generosity. Then there’s the small and sometimes anxious woman who emerges to play key plot roles, especially in Iphigenia.
The Malcolm we encounter in The Last Interview shares the self-awareness, briskness, clarity, and humor she possesses elsewhere: “I walk fast and am impatient. I get bored easily,” Malcolm tells the Paris Review. “I often get stuck. Then I get sleepy and have to lie down. Or I make myself leave the house—walking sometimes produces a solution. The problem is usually one of logic or point of view. I keep regular morning hours. The first hour is the most productive one.” Worrywart writers will find much to love in Malcolm’s description of herself: “The machinery works slowly and erratically and I am always a little nervous about it, though by now I’m pretty used to it,” she emails. “I guess I trust it more.”
But where Malcolm the journalist is unsparing and direct, Malcolm the interviewee is ultimately vague and evasive. “What’s true? Is it possible to know what’s true?” Goldberg asks in the Salon interview. Malcolm answers: “I’d love to hear you talk about it rather than me.”
“Why do you think the subject of betrayal is something that’s your subject?” Wachtel asks her on the radio. “That’s very interesting,” Malcolm says. “You’re kind of putting me on the spot.”
Interviews aren’t the same as sworn testimony, but they rhyme. They use questions to flatter, badger, and trap witnesses who, in turn, evade when they can and admit things they don’t want to. Reporting and the law both rely on evidence and discovery, asking for honesty and promising fairness in exchange. They offer just about the best systems we have for hearing arguments, measuring doubt, rendering judgment, and appealing verdicts—except, maybe, for psychoanalysis. All three approaches use confrontation to turn ambiguity into clarity, but only one can punish an outburst or lie by locking the speaker away.
The long and famous case against Malcolm began in 1984, after she published a New Yorker profile about a lawsuit from a star scholar named Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson against the Sigmund Freud Archives. It was also a vibrant portrait of a charming and ambitious heel. Masson accused Malcolm in the Washington Post of misquoting him “any number of times.” (The newspaper reporter, a young David Remnick, wrote that Malcolm was away on vacation in Italy and couldn’t be reached for comment.) When Malcolm expanded the piece into a book, In the Freud Archives, Masson complained again, in a letter to the New York Times. The response she sent offered to play the tapes of their conversations for Times editors “whenever they have 40 or 50 short hours to spare.” Masson sued her for libel soon after.
His case began terribly. Many of the quotes he had denied saying turned out to be on her tape. Others really were missing, though, and Malcolm had an unusual story: she had tripped over her recorder’s cord before a morning interview, took notes instead, typed them up, and misplaced the originals. But a judge decided Malcolm had reasonably interpreted whatever Masson had actually said and threw out the suit. Just after Malcolm published The Journalist and the Murderer, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Masson’s appeal. Anthony Kennedy, joined by six other justices, wrote that a misquote has to hit the reader’s mind differently than the right one would to cross the line into libel. It would be up to a jury to decide if Malcolm’s writing and Masson’s words shared “the substance, the gist, the sting.” (When the Times asked for comment, Malcolm was back in Italy.)
Inside a federal court in California in May 1993, Malcolm took the stand. Masson’s lawyer, a former quarterback and Air Force navigator named Charles O. Morgan Jr., asked Malcolm about a key monologue at the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. “You reported in the article that the entire statement was made by Mr. Masson at lunch,” Morgan asked.1
“Yes,” Malcolm said.
“And that is not true.”
“That’s right,” Malcolm said. She had compressed conversations over seven months into one monologue, she told the jury, using them like “sketches incorporated into one painting.” Anything else, she testified, would be foolish: “I do not want to write the exact words, I do not want to write a transcript,” she went on. “This thing called speech is sloppy, redundant, repetitious, full of uhs and ahs.” When that line surfaces in the introduction to The Last Interview, Roiphe cites it admiringly, praising Malcolm for improving on the “casualness and mediocrity of expression” by “trimming and shaping.” Morgan, the attorney, argued otherwise.
“Do you call that rearranging events?” he asked.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Do you call it creating a conversation?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way, no.”
Before the trial ended, Malcolm testified that the chaos and contradiction of speech had forced her hand: “He’s trying to tell too many things at the same time. You had to work hard to get the story straight because he was all over the place.”
Jurors decided for Masson. But they couldn’t agree on damages, so the judge announced they’d start the whole thing over. In one of her most gripping pieces, published in the New York Review of Books months before her death, Malcolm recalls the makeover she gave herself with a speech coach before returning to the stand. Back in the courthouse, she gave “a long speech about the monologue technique that Morgan kept interrupting but was unable to stop,” Malcolm writes. “I went relentlessly on and on. I talked about the difference between the full and compelling account of his rise and fall in the Freud Archives that Masson gives in the article and his wandering incomplete speech in the restaurant. I spoke of the months of interviews out of which, bit by bit, the monologue was formed. I concluded by saying, ‘I have taken this round-about way of answering your question, Mr. Morgan, because I wanted the jury to know how I work, and what we’re talking about here in talking about this monologue.’”
After one kind of Malcolm monologue about another, the jury dismissed concerns about three of the five quotes in question. But jurors decided the two others—about the sterility of psychoanalysis and Masson’s bosses—were false, and that the latter qualified as defamation. They also decided, though, that Malcolm hadn’t been reckless enough to cross the legal line of libel. She won and wept.
What happened a year later gets more attention in the book of her interviews than her testimony. “I was in my country house, and there was something red on the floor, and I picked it up, this red notebook. My granddaughter had seen something red in the bookcase and pulled it out, and there were the notes”—the ones she took after tripping over the recorder’s cord. “I felt like I was going to faint.” If only she had found them earlier, she tells Wachtel, “the whole thing could’ve been avoided.” She emails the story to the Believer, too: “The jury had decided to believe me anyway. But if the notebook hadn’t got misplaced, there would have been no lawsuit.”
The fact is that Malcolm’s accounts, as she liked to write about other people, “don’t add up.” The missing red notebook had three of the quotes in question, but not the two that had bothered the jury. “Do we ourselves add up?” Goldberg asks Malcolm in the Salon interview.
“No,” Malcolm answers. “Of course we don’t.”
That someone so thoughtful about the moral perils of journalism could be messy enough to collage scenes together—then blithe enough to testify it was all for the best and deluded enough to say a missing notebook explained it all—is a paradox that we Malcolm fans have to live with. It’s also, of course, a version of what her work was warning about. Whether her shortcomings bring her journalism to life or do something more like undermine it is the kind of thing you would want to ask her, right before running out of the room.
Roiphe’s introduction to The Last Interview avoids Malcolm’s mysteries and messes. It’s less about the morals or machinery of her journalism than what it was like to be her bud. “When a friend texted me that Janet Malcolm had died, I experienced more than the usual amount of disbelief,” it begins. “This is one of the conversations I wish I’d had with Janet herself at Choshi,” Roiphe writes later, “the now-closed sushi place she favored around the corner from her house. I know she would have had thoughts on it.” If you’re in a generous mood, you can read the intro as a kind of pun on Malcolm’s interest in the “I” who narrates literary nonfiction: “I wonder,” “I confessed,” “I suggested,” “I fixate,” I understand,” “I hear,” Roiphe writes, and then “I love” three times in a row.
It all comes to a crescendo with a sort of Freudian slip. “I have always used her writing to teach confidence,” she writes, meaning to refer to Malcolm’s authoritativeness but channeling the line that follows The Journalist and the Murderer’s famous opening: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
The first of the interviews, with Salon, opens with the kind of reportorial antagonism I found myself missing as the book went on: If journalists are murderers, Goldberg asks, why was Malcolm speaking to one? Malcolm twists away by complimenting the question and pointing out she used to avoid reporters entirely. “When the book came out and people wanted to ask me questions, I said, ‘Well, read the book.”
“I did,” Goldberg answers, standing her ground. “That’s why I’m asking.” Instead of saying why she agreed to the interview, Malcolm explains why she shouldn’t have: “I’m just not very good at it. I often have no answers to the questions; I think of the answers later.”
It’s a moment when the tension and confrontation that the book mostly suppresses manages to leak out, but not the only one. In the Believer, when Beal dares to ask if getting sued changed her approach with subjects, Malcolm shows her teeth: “Until this moment you were the first interviewer who did not bring Jeffrey Masson into the discussion. I guess that isn’t possible after all.” You again get the sense that the nastiness of journalism was only fun for Malcolm to consider when it was someone else’s.
Beal backs off: “Sorry to be so tiresome,” she writes back. “Just like the rest.” The exchange ends soon after, but, following a line break, an italicized note says Malcolm read the transcript and sent this in an email: “I read the interview in the way one looks at photographs of oneself, and, except for one place, I thought I came out looking okay. But the exception may be the most interesting part of the interview.” It’s Masson. “Until that moment the atmosphere of the interview is friendly and collegial, almost conspiratorial. Now it turns icy.” Malcolm goes on: “What is most interesting about this moment in our interview is the illustration it offers of a subject’s feeling of betrayal when he or she realizes that the journalist is writing his or her own story.”
If a goal of Malcolm’s journalism was to measure the distance between the stories that reporters shape and the ones subjects tell about themselves, this book makes the mistake of letting her maintain almost complete control of the tape—or, in the case of Roiphe’s Paris Review interview, the notebook. “I want to talk about that moment in our meeting at my apartment last week, when I left the room to find a book and suggested that while I was away you might want to take notes about the living room for the descriptive opening of this interview,” Malcolm writes in an email that’s quoted in the interview’s introduction. “You obediently took out a notebook, and gave me a rather stricken look, as if I had asked you to do something faintly embarrassing.” Malcolm fills it in for her in the interview: “My living room has an oakwood floor, Persian carpets, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a large ficus and large fern, a fireplace with a group of photographs and drawings over it, a glass-top coffee table with a bowl of dried pomegranates on it, and sofas and chairs covered in off-white linen.”
That’s not to say deference is so terrible. Even though the “By the Book” feature in the Times only asks Malcolm about reading, she looks around her bookshelves and spots “petulant desperation,” “wild terrain,” “the eye of eternity,” and on top of her night table “a box of Kleenex, a two-year-old Garnet Hill catalog and a cough drop on it.”
But you find yourself yearning for confrontation and catharsis. Did she, in her later writing, stick with the collage method she defended on the stand, or was it sublimated into the delicate collages she started making—and exhibiting at art galleries—from handwriting, typewritten papers and book pages?
Salon asks this: “Do you see any relationship between your collages and your writing?”
“I think so,” Malcolm answers. “I like to think about my work as kind of collage-like.” There isn’t a followup, because their interview, right there, is over.
Roiphe ends her essay with herself, so I get to end mine with me.
When I was hired as a newspaper reporter in 2006, taking over the New York Observer’s weekly column on the city’s most expensive real estate, I was introduced to business journalism at the peak of what turned out to be a bubble. I wrote about buyers and sellers who played a role in inflating and then bursting it: “Money just doesn’t mean anything,” one of the city’s high-end brokers told me not long before Bear Stearns collapsed and the era came to an end. I switched beats in 2009 to report on the landscape of Wall Street’s culture, covering some of the same people, only how they made their money instead of where they spent it.
I fell in love with Malcolm’s journalism because it seemed to me at the time to be a map to the crises I would have to navigate. I imagined that the tensions her books describe only multiply if interview subjects are rich and powerful. Higher stakes, I figured, only complicate access and relationships. Reading these interviews makes me think I was wrong. They are reminders that even the subjects who best understand what’s happening can’t fully explain themselves to outsiders, and that no journalist knows how to get them to reveal it all.
What is there to do about it? “Perhaps the way to minimize one’s feeling that one has not been as straightforward with the subject as one should have been,” she tells the Believer, “is to be a little more straightforward.” Sometimes I talk to my subjects about the trouble Malcolm picked up on, and the trouble she got into. And sometimes I can feel the acknowledgement make us both relax, at least for a little bit.
But Malcolm wouldn’t want anybody to get too comfortable. When the Believer asks if subjects occupy a different place in her mind at the end of writing than they had during interviews, she writes back that she isn’t sure she understands the question. Beal tries again: “How do you make the switch from supplicant or equal interviewer to authority writer?”
“Yes, it is a problem,” Malcolm answers, “and no, it can’t be resolved.”
Quotes from the trials come from coverage in the New York Times, Village Voice and Washington Post. ↩