It made you seek what?
Stability, family, continuity, predictability—all those elements that have come together in the 57-year-old woman you’re looking at right now.
Did you have an awakening that led you to write about relationships?
I started my journalism career writing about food for the Chicago Tribune, but when I began writing profiles for Chicago magazine, I knew I had hit my true love. I became the fashion writer for the Dallas Times Herald, but I always cared about people and their relationships, their families, their roots.
How did you make it into feature writing in Washington?
I was sitting at my desk at the Dallas Times Herald in the early ’80s, and there was this lilting Australian accent on the telephone. It was Max McCrohon, who had been an editor at the Chicago Tribune before he was dispatched to Washington to be editor of United Press International. He said, “How would you like to come to Washington? We’re starting a features section.” I said, “Oh, my God, Max—that’d be so wonderful. What would I be writing about?” He said, “You can interview anyone you want in the world.”
I ended up writing 5,000-word profiles for a series called Life-Size—profiling people like Queen Noor, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Bush, Yoko Ono, Elie Wiesel, Billy Graham. I loved the shift from having to focus on what people were wearing to finding out the essence of who they are.
How did you get into writing about relationships?
In my mid-twenties, I had been in four weddings and I was dating people I thought I could marry, so I started writing a series about relationships. AIDS had just made its debut, so I would write pieces like “monogamy is in, swinging is out,” how to hunt for Mr. Right, what not to look for in a husband, sort of based on my own observations and dating life.
In your observations about love and relationships, you rarely mention spirituality. Do you believe in God?
I still say the prayers every night that I’ve said since I was six: “Thank you, God, for a good day. Bless my mom and dad, sister, brother, Ann, Mary, Grandma, all my friends, babysitters, teachers, and God and my country.” Most of the people in those prayers are dead, but I still say their names every night. So I do believe in God. I do believe that prayers are answered, and Judaism is a rock of who I am, as it was for my mother.
How did she impart that to you?
In her later life, she lost half a leg. She lost my father when she was only 65. She lost her immediate family to Hitler’s death camps. I used to ask, “Mom, how can you get up in the morning?” And she would say in this really thick Polish accent, “So your friends come and go. Your father, he came and went. My leg, it came and went, but Iya”—that’s what she used to call me—“nobody can ever take my Judaism away, nobody.”
To leap forward to The Secret Lives of Wives, the real secret to staying married forever is to have a sense of purpose and passion and spirituality beyond your partnership, because in the end, we’re all alone. I never feel alone because there is that fire and that center—call it God—that I am connected to.
From the sacred to the profane: Who was your first boyfriend?
My first big crush was Woody Peterson in fourth grade. He was very funny, and he wore really adorable glasses. He was tall and thin, and he’s actually my type. My husband is a Woody Peterson type.
Who was your first real love?
Probably Ray, my high-school boyfriend, an Italian guy who played tight end on the football team and also played the guitar. I went steady with him for two years. He was very quiet and very smart. His father owned a restaurant. I loved him and his family, and I’m still in touch with his sister. But he was wrong for me in the long run.
Was that a good relationship?
It was good. He listened and I talked. Kind of sums up my marriage.
What are your limits for delving into your personal life?
If you read my five books, there’s so much unspoken. I am 25 percent self-revelatory in order to get my subjects to open up 100 percent. If I’m going to excavate hundreds of people’s lives and really expose them in books, I have to share some of my own story. But I am not going to write about really personal things like how many times I have sex a week.
How’s your marriage?
I am in a very traditional marriage in terms of loyalty, fidelity, and trust. In this and other books, I’ve talked about couples who swing, couples who sleep around. I’m a flirt, but I’m married and I’m true to the vows.
You’ve written about Chuck, your husband, as a loving partner but rather silent. What does he think about excavations into his life? Do you show him the books first?
Sometimes. Honestly, he’d rather watch hockey than read drafts of my books. He’s just happy that I’ve written five books and that I’m making a good living. He knows that my passion is writing and that a writer needs to write, and he’s just happy I’m getting paid to do what I love.
Did he read The Secret Lives of Wives before it was published?
No. I gave it to him the week it was published, and he read the whole thing. He had one comment: In the last chapter I say he was cutting our hedges with a chain saw. The only thing he said was “It wasn’t a chain saw.”
Is he as quiet as you portray him?
He is silent often, and he does watch hockey. When Chuck is watching hockey, he will not look at me, even if the house is burning down. If you were to ask, “What makes you the maddest about your marriage?” it would be this: If I’m speaking to you, you need to look at me in the eyes. I will stand in front of the TV, and when the vein throbs in my neck and I’m my most angry, he still won’t look at me because he is fixated on—who’s the guy with the missing tooth?—Ovechkin scooting around the ice.
Can you see how mad I am getting? I want to be listened to. So why’d I marry him?
Chuck has the sexiest quality you could ever want in a person.
Reliability. At least I know where to find him. A lot of women don’t know where to find their husbands.
Was he always that way?
On one of our first dates, I remember asking him: “If you could characterize me in one word, what would it be?” It was the first time he ever ate sushi—I took him to Sushiko. And he said, “Provocative.” He put his head back, and he’s so handsome and he’s six-foot-three and he had, you know, a brown beard and incandescent blue eyes, and he sort of looked at me and he goes, “How would you characterize me?” And I said, “Reliable.” And he goes, “That is not sexy.” I said, “You have no idea how sexy that is after the stable of Mr. Wrongs that I’ve been subjected to.”
Next: "Is that the secret to success in marraige?"