Q&A: Jill Abramson
See Jill become The New York Times' first woman executive editor. Read her charming new memoir, "The Puppy Diaries," in stores Oct. 11.
Jill and Scout relax in Connecticut.
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JILL ABRAMSON, who resides in southeastern Connecticut part time with her husband Henry and their 2-year-old golden retriever, Scout, starts a new job as executive editor of the The New York Times this month—she’s the first woman to fill that role in the Gray Lady’s 160-year history—and has a new book to celebrate as well, The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout (Times Books; $22). It comes to stores Oct. 11.
I understand this book started as a series of columns for the Times' website. How and why did you decide to turn it into a book?
I did the columns basically through my dog Scout's first year. When you're writing online, first and foremost, you try to keep things a manageable length. But as I went along, I realized that there was a nice narrative that linked the particular episodes that I'd written about into a story that really moved along chronologically, and that there were really a lot of experiences and observations I had that might be helpful to people who get a brand new dog and can sometimes feel overwhelmed. So I thought adding that material might be both interesting and instructive.
What was the biggest challenge of this transformation?
In my journalism career—my background is in investigative journalism—I've written long narratives, and tackled the challenge of making them gripping and highly readable. And I'd written previous books. The challenge here was that I wasn't taking a book leave, even though some research was involved, and some digging, and some additional reporting to include characters like Temple Grandin or Cesar Millan. It wasn't all-encompassing, but in being something I worked on on the weekends. It became a very pleasurable thing to do—to go back over what I'd written online and turn it into a real story, with a clear narrative arc and characters who could be brought to life. That can be like figuring out a puzzle. I spent many pleasurable hours with Scout curled up right beside me. Our house has a library where I usually do work. It's where I did most of the writing for this book.
Sounds like most of your research had more to do with learning about her.
I did quite a bit of looking into what was really a controversy over dog-training approaches. That was something I did a lot of reading on and talking to people about. Also, subjects like dog nutrition, which I didn't know that much about. But you're right, it's really a personal story more than anything else.
What's the most important thing you've learned about yourself as a result of raising Scout?
To relax and let the relationship with any dog evolve. Dogs that I've owned and know each have their own particular personality and needs, and you're not going to learn everything important about them from a training book or puppy kindergarten teacher. And you have to surrender yourself to them a bit. I think I probably share a trait with many of my readers, which is everyone likes to feel that they're in control. But you never are with a puppy. That can be a tremendous amount of fun, as well as hair-raising.
Obviously, given my job, I like to feel like I have things in order and am progressing from point A to B. And you just have to accept that that's not going to be the way it happens.
This didn't really surprise me, but something more I learned about myself is that my relationship with dogs is a really important part of my life. That doesn't make me less serious about my work, or interfere with other friendships and family relationships that I have. I'm not alone in that I love family life, but at one point I found myself with an empty nest and with our first dog, Buddy, as my main companion. It was sad and difficult when he died. It doesn't rate nearly as highly as the daily problems many people encounter in their lives, but it is difficult to get a new relationship going—and my expectation was that my relationship with my new dog would be like the old one. I had to come to grips with the fact that this was a completely new dog at a different time in my life, so I had to let the relationship develop in its own way.
You've said that you're a dog nut . . .
What is it about them that makes you feel that way?
I'm a playful person; I love exercise. I love being outside in the fields near our house in Connecticut enjoying the gorgeous scenery, but it's better with a companion. To me, it's just a release from the incredibly serious and often sad or unethical issues in the news stories I deal with all week long. It's a nice break for me, and Scout revels in play and walking and just being with me. There's something lovely about that.
What piece of advice would you now give to someone looking for a new dog?
I would say that if, by experience or belief, you think you'd be a good dog owner—that you'd revel in that relationship and nurture it and have fun doing it—then go for it. There still are a million reasons to talk yourself out of it, like you don't have enough time or the amount of space you'd want. But those things pale next to the pure joy of owning a dog. It doesn't have to be a puppy; it can be a full-grown dog. The investment pays off in such a rewarding way.