News & Politics

Hesse’s Got Style

Can a slight, self-effacing, 26-year-old writer from Normal, Illinois, help revive a Washington Post Style section suffering from shortened stories and shrinking staff? If readers come for witty prose on sometimes weird subjects, Monica Hesse could help bring Style back.

You want quirky? She’s written about a woman who wrestles alligators, the death of facts, overpriced enviro-gadgets, and a polyamory convention—that’s for couples who believe multiple partners is the way to go.

“I had to have her,” says Style features editor Ann Gerhart, who picked Hesse as a summer intern last year. Now she’s hired on as a two-year intern.

Getting a job at a big daily in these days of buyouts and layoffs is hard; landing a job at Style is like forcing a typewriter through a pinhole.

“I was never interested in journalism when I was growing up,” Hesse says.

Her father taught writing at Illinois State; her mother was a therapist. Life in Normal was, well, normal—and sweet, thanks to the Nestlé factory.

Hesse came east to college at Bryn Mawr, an all-female school outside of Philadelphia. “If you didn’t belong in high school,” she says, “you will belong at Bryn Mawr.”

She wrote a column for the school paper and took a class in feature writing. The summer of her junior year, she was assigned an internship at a magazine. Her friends went to places like Rolling Stone; she got AARP the Magazine.

After college she had her New York experience, sharing a flat with two struggling actors and a Lab puppy that needed house training. She read unsolicited manuscripts for a division of Penguin. She lasted four months: “Only so much bad writing you can read in a day.”

AARP, publisher of AARP the Magazine, asked her to join its staff, so she came to DC in 2003. She moved from fact checker to writer of the Big 5-0 column—at age 23. She interviewed celebs turning 50. Her favorite was Dee Snider, front man for heavy-metal band Twisted Sister.

“After he sharpened his teeth into vampire spikes,” she says he told her, “his wife refused to have sex with him.”

Being 23 didn’t stop Hesse from writing for fiftysomethings. Not drinking didn’t stop her from writing about the bar scene for On Tap, a free DC tabloid.

She took a nonfiction-writing class at Johns Hopkins where Post Style writer Laura Blumenfeld spoke one evening; Hesse says she latched onto Blumenfeld “like a bulldog.”

One day Hesse saw a sign for a church that would “save your soul” on 14th Street in DC’s Shaw neighborhood. She took a peek: “People were talking in tongues and writhing on the floor.” She wrote it up; the Post’s Metro section published it.

Gerhart grabbed her for an internship last summer. Says Hesse: “I just wrote. I never went home.”

Style kept her on and has published 100 of her stories. People talk to Hesse, perhaps, because she has the querulous, nonthreatening look of a kid who grew up amid cornfields. Her stories can be funny and also biting.

“What comes off as wry might be an appreciation of how weird life is,” she says, “how absurd even the most normal things can be.”

Is Style—often called “the sandbox”—normal?

“It’s the most awesome place ever,” she says.

For once, Hesse sounds like she’s 26.

This article appears in the June 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.

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