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Monday, April 16, 2012

Behind the Blog Post: Rachel Nolan on Doing the Math on McGrath

The next volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson will be coming out next month, and the New York Times ran a lengthy piece on Caro and his project. The piece, written by Charles McGrath, probed the factors driving Caro to write about Johnson. Later, Rachel Nolan, writing for the New York Times's "The 6th Floor" blog, asked McGrath to talk about why he chose to write about Caro. Earlier today, I got a chance to ask Nolan what interested her about McGrath.*

It seems as though the "Sixth Floor" blog likes to have a lot of fun with its subjects. It wants to show a lighter side of life at the New York Times. For instance, the two posts that immediately preceded your post on McGrath were about the economics of matzo production and spoofs of the Romney campaign. Is it fair to say that the blog takes a lighter tone than the magazine itself?

Well, you know, I would say that what ties the "Sixth Floor" blog together thematically is not so much a tone or a viewpoint as it is the desire not to, how can I put this, let things slip through the cracks. It's sort of a net for little thoughts that don't fit in the magazine but that we would hate do discard. It's sort of a residual category.

The category of things that don't otherwise fall into publishable categories.

Yes, that's a big part of it, and also the desire to be more transparent about how the magazine actually functions. I think people have this mental image of, I don't know, almost a methodical or industrial kind of process, but that's not at all how it is. Charlie loves Caro's writing, and so the piece really emerged from that fascination, and not from some abstract formula.

So tell me, what did you find so compelling about McGrath's story?

Well, it's really the combination of Charlie's single-minded focus—he read up to 400 pages of Caro's LBJ biography per day—and the importance of his subject. In many ways, the story of Robert Caro sheds light on the world we live in. And who else has the stamina to do what Charlie is doing, writing long-form journalism about Robert Caro? I mean, just to read the three published volumes of the LBJ biography is quite an undertaking, leaving aside The Power Broker. And of course, no one writes like Charlie.

The passage where he writes in the voice of Robert Caro is uncanny.

Exactly, that's an instant classic. There was a kind of hidden drama to the piece, by the way. We knew that Knopf would be publishing the next volume soon, and that the New Yorker was going to excerpt the book. So Charlie was in a race against time, to tell the story in his own words. On the sixth floor, we were all so tense, wondering if he would make it.

Well, he did, and your blog post does a great job of capturing some of the factors that went into the piece. Thank you for talking with me today.

My pleasure.

* Note, I didn't actually speak with Rachel Nolan.


Anonymous Gravid Joerg said...

Your footnote makes no sense. The piece is clearly written in two different voices one of which emanates from the southern hemisphere.

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