Gravitation Generator: Laurie Sandell Talks “Life Inside the Madoff Family” and Announcing Her Pregnancy Via The NY Times

Laurie Sandell / Photo credit: Alexandra DeFurio
Photo by Alexandra DeFurio

Laurie Sandell has written for The New York Times, Esquire, GQ, Marie Claire, Glamour, New York, Real Simple and InStyle, among other publications. Her cartoons have appeared in Redbook, Glamour, New York and The Wall Street Journal. Her graphic memoir, The Impostor’s Daughter, was published by Little, Brown in July 2009 and nominated for a 2010 Eisner Award in the “Best Reality-Based Work” category. Her second book, Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family, was published by Little, Brown in October 2011. She lives in Santa Monica, CA.

Laurie and I first met as she was still writing, illustrating and editing her personal memoir, The Impostor’s Daughter. Her quirky life story is one that instantly fascinated me. Charming and disarming, its not hard to understand why she is a much sought after entity. Since then, she’s moved West, publicly discussed her artificial insemination (The New York Times’ How To Break Up With A 2-Year-Old)  and is working on another book project. Laurie Sandell’s Jada Pinkett Smith cover story for Redbook is on newsstands now.

Daniel Efram: I was reading through some of your interview questions and love this one. Can you tell your life story in the space of a cocktail napkin? Go!!!

Born in New York, family moved to the wasteland that is Stockton, California, back in New York by age eight. Bizarre upbringing became the subject of my first book, The Impostor’s Daughter. Off to college at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, traveled the world for four years upon graduation (Israel, India, Japan, Jordan, Egypt, S. America, and all over Europe). Got a job as a secretary in an investment bank, quit after 9/11 to become a freelance writer, got a full-time gig as an editor at Glamour, became a celebrity interviewer, scored a writing contract and went freelance again, wrote a book about Bernie Madoff’s family, moved to Los Angeles, decided to have a baby on my own. Waiting for the next chapter to begin.

Video: The Impostor’s Daughter

DE: I found your first book, The Imposter’s Daughter, fascinating. Was it difficult to complete?

Uh, yeah. It was pretty brutal. The pain was less from the writing process itself and more from the events that were unfolding in my own life as I processed all the lies my father had told and the implosion of our relationship. Also, I originally envisioned the book as a non-fiction memoir, but eventually decided to do a graphic memoir instead. It took me a full year to draw the cartoons, and sometimes I was drawing for up to eight hours a day. So nothing about the process was easy.

DE: Besides the deadlines involved, how does writing for a magazine differ from authoring a book? What are the variety of ways that ideas get pitched? What is the most satisfying work for you?

Magazine work is fast and intense; book-writing is slow and painful. I would prefer to spend most of my time working on books and writing magazine articles on the side, since there is something very satisfying about digging into a long-term project. But for the moment, it’s the other way around. Pitches can happen in a variety of ways: cold, via e-mail; casually, through a conversation with an editor friend; or crowd-sourced during a meeting. People used to pitch me magazine ideas all the time when I was on staff at Glamour. Most of the e-mails that came in felt like a re-hash of ideas that were already in the magazine. A good rule of thumb: Is the idea interesting to you? If you brought it up at a cocktail party, would people grow rapt and listen? The best stories are both universal and original.

DE: You’ve profiled a wide range of characters, from Freida Pinto, Taylor Swift to  McSweeney’s Dave Eggers. Dish. What are your favorite types of pieces?

I am a curious person by nature, so I can find almost anyone interesting to talk to. But, like many, I am fascinated by huge, A-list stars. What are they really like? How do they differ from their on-screen persona? When I get an assignment to interview someone like Angelina Jolie, Meg Ryan, Sarah Jessica Parker, J. Lo, Christina Aguilera, etc., I know I’m going to come away with a fascinating character portrait, a unique perspective on a person the world thinks they know, AND a really good story for friends! My favorite pieces are the ones that go a little deeper than the average interview-celebrity-over-lunch-in-hotel-lobby type story. I just interviewed Jada Pinkett Smith for Redbook at the sprawling home she shares with Will Smith, and simply because we were at her house and I got to meet her kids, the story was so much more detailed and interesting than it would have been. I also interviewed Selena Gomez recently for the cover of this month’s InStyle, and because the piece was “running text”–rather than a Q & A–I was able to offer many more details about what I observed.


DE: At your birthday party two years ago, I was chatting with a charming gent for a good portion of my evening. He introduced himself only as “Andrew.” Only later did you take me aside and explain that this was Bernie Madoff’s son Andrew. How did you end up working on Truth And Consequences, the definitive Madoff Family perspective tell-all book? How difficult was it to keep the project secret? Bottom line, are they innocent?

That was definitely one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Andrew’s fiancee happened to be in the audience when I was reading from my memoir about my father, The Impostor’s Daughter. After the event she introduced herself because our stories had similarities. When she invited me to dinner of course I accepted; I was brimming with curiosity and a huge dose of skepticism. I got to know Andrew, Catherine, and later, Ruth, over the next two years, but it wasn’t until I decided to write a book and spent hundreds of hours talking to the family that I became entirely convinced of their innocence. Because the story is a complicated one, you’d have to read the book to understand how I came to that conclusion. But it’s one I’m very comfortable with. And yes, it was incredibly difficult to keep the project under wraps. I went away to a writer’s colony and barely emerged from my room.

Video: Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family

DE: Asking you for an interesting story is ridonkulous you’ve got so many. Describe the an amusing celebrity interview moment. And, If given no limits of time, space or philosophy, who would be some of your dream interviews?

A few months after I interviewed Lara Flynn Boyle, I ran into her at the Chateau Marmont hotel. We ended up playing the game “Celebrity” with a group of people–how meta is that? She was poking holes in her Marlboro Reds to make them lighter, putting an ice bucket on her head and pretending it was a hat, and letting all the slips of paper from the game flutter to the floor saying, “Don’t know who that is….don’t know who that is.” As for my dream interviews, most of them would not end up on the cover of a mass-market women’s magazine, so I’ll have to keep dreaming. But they would be Woody Allen, Gloria Steinem, Philip Roth, Pedro Almodovar, Louis CK, George RR Martin (though I actually did sit next to him at a breakfast a few years ago and he didn’t say a word to me), and Kate Middleton, among many others. I would also happily interview anyone currently in meltdown mode.


DE: Let’s talk writer camps. For me, having simply seen you ping pong-ing, yo-yo’ing, fishing, cooking and boating, these seem like a bit of a joke. [Okay, forget the cooking remark… I’ve never seen you do this.] Does anything productive actually happen or are these glorifies vacations?

Ha ha, I’m afraid to say too much about them because they already attract so many applicants it’s getting really hard to get in. But yes, basically they are all-expenses-paid retreats where a writer can go to work all day, breaking only for meals, and in the evenings, unless you’re on a book deadline, people tend to hang out, talk, drink, laugh, canoe, and play ping pong. I find it nearly impossible to work on a book at home, so I apply to artist’s colonies once a year, and have been lucky enough to go about six times.


DE: Your life has changed dramatically in the last four years—you’re pregnant, moved from your longtime Brooklyn residence and published two books. What inspired these big moves? How’ve they worked out for you?

Yes, big changes in the past four years! Every big event that has happened in my life has been the result of taking a risk. When I was working as a secretary at an investment bank in the late nineties, I quit with no other job lined up to try my hand at freelance writing. When I heard about an editing opportunity at Glamour, I applied for the job with no editing experience and got it. Four years later, I asked my boss if I could go on contract so that I could work from home; if she would have said no, I would have left anyway, because I wanted to write a book and knew I couldn’t do it while working full-time. She said yes, and I held onto that contract for three years. Then I leapt into the unknown again, going freelance so I could write for a variety of magazines. I didn’t know if it was going to work out but it did–luckily another book project came along–and I moved to LA to expand my writing opportunities as a celebrity interviewer. When a serious relationship I had in LA didn’t work out, I decided to have a baby on my own. I was lucky enough to get pregnant on the first try. So it was really a combination of luck and moxie. I’m pretty thrilled about the way my life is going at the moment.

Video: Stacked Up TV favorite books

DE: Now for the good stuff! Is it cheating if the relationship isn’t official?

It’s cheating once you decide to be exclusive as a couple. Before that, it’s called dating!


DE: Do you have a guru? Someone you go to for guidance?

I don’t have what I would call a guru, but I would definitely call Merrill Markoe a mentor (and now a great friend). She is the original head writer and co-creator of Late Night with David Letterman and has written eight or nine books. We met when I edited a piece she wrote for Glamour and she became a total champion and support as I delved into the mystery of my father. When I moved out to LA a few years ago, we started to hang out on a regular basis. I go to her with all sorts of life and writing questions. She’s brilliant, hilarious and a true original.


DE: Any advice for budding writers?

As for budding writers, my advice is always the same: Just sit down and do it. Stop talking about it. Don’t call yourself an “aspiring writer,” if you’re writing, you’re a writer, even if you’re not published yet. Also, get a mentor. Write to someone whose work you admire and find out how they got there. Lastly, find a friend to be your writing buddy and meet with them weekly. I did this for two years with a friend who is now an editor at Bon Appetit and we both swear it was responsible for our entire careers. Writing is a lonely profession and it is crucial that you not write in a vacuum. Set deadlines for each other, brainstorm ideas, and check in. It can make all the difference.


DE: What do you think of having consistent writing partners?

I never had a writing partner in NYC, but I did write in coffee shops on a regular basis with the writers Amanda Stern, Nathan Englander and Said Sayrafiezadeh. I’ve never been one to work quietly at home, alone; I prefer the company of other writers. How else would we help each other procrastinate? Now that I live in LA, I have a real writing partner, Amy Spencer, who is a book author and celebrity interviewer for women’s magazines, like me. We just wrote our first screenplay together and have ideas for three more. She is the absolute best–we work for hours, taking 15 minute breaks to fantasize about what life is going to be like when we get rich. She loves to quote John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who said, “Now let’s write a swimming pool.”

A selection of personal essays by Laurie Sandell:

How To Break Up With A 2-Year-Old (The New York Times)
Loving A Madoff (Maire Claire)
Diary of a Sleeping Pill Junkie (Glamour)