The Eternal Hunt for Relevance: Doree Shafrir Discusses Startup

They broke up, and Justin did not take it well. It was really important for me to talk to people who actually had, and to get their frank assessment of what it was like. Why hasn’t anyone written a novel that discusses issues of gender, and gender discrimination, and sexual harassment in tech? That you can just condense these characters? Somehow, however, Doree Shafrir’s first novel, Startup, has found its time and place. Doree Shafrir: You probably aren’t supposed to come away from the book being inspired to become a journalist. I wanted them to feel real, and I think that that is how most people are. While I miss the   Observer—and I certainly miss Peter—that kind of journalism doesn’t seem to fit with our current moment. Rumpus: Do you have a fondness for all your characters? If people’s reaction is, I don’t want to become Dan, then you know what? But my grandparents on my mother’s side, they were very skeptical of technology, and never got a personal computer. Having been a journalist for thirteen years, you have to be so careful and devoted to accuracy. Almost no one is consistently “good” all the time. He’s very selfish. It’s not as easy as just being like, I love my kids. It hasn’t put me off having children, though. It just felt sad to me. Rumpus: My copy of the book says, “Dedication TK.” Either you were dedicating the book to someone with the initials TK, or you hadn’t decided yet. We all struggle with that. I think, in a way, nostalgia for that kind of journalism is actually just a longing for a simpler time. But they also all kind of suck. I don’t want to be a mom like Sabrina. I would never presume to know what’s best for kids. Know what happens, and how it happens. We tried to get it for them, and they were just not interested. Mack feels very real. Nauseating? Shafrir: It is amazing. That’s the thing. I probably shouldn’t have been that surprised. In terms of how that relates to me, I’m obviously not a parent yet. Of course, they lived for twenty more years. Even though you’re relatively well known in journalism, you’re still a debut novelist. Shafrir: Well, why do you do anything, you know? But why not have a protagonist who is not the ugly duckling at Random House or Vogue? Is there a temptation to see them tormented and squirm? But I might have then tried to get the story another way. Rumpus: Was Startup written when it was sold? Shafrir: For sure. He had been a major character, with a whole storyline, but I realized his story was just not that interesting. Rumpus: It’s a different landscape from the one we both came out of: the New York Observer under Peter Kaplan. What was the most surprising thing you learned from them? But she is in a situation now where she’s just overwhelmed by them. Beyond the communication stuff: even though a lot of the Internet is shitty, there’s still a lot of cool things about it that they just never were able to experience. A lot of the fiction and nonfiction—but certainly fiction about tech and Silicon Valley—has been written by men, and often by men, like Dave Eggers, who never worked in Silicon Valley, and are, in fact, very skeptical of technology and startups. I imagine people in various stages of their life reading this book and perhaps thinking the same thing about other characters. That always made me a little sad. You can’t just decide that someone’s gonna say something, or that someone felt a certain way. Which is fine. Shafrir: I probably would not have taken the photo at the party. Nothing these people told me was nauseating. And, I don’t know, what was the most nauseating thing? How do I get them from point A to point B? Shafrir: I chose my grandparents. I’m not gonna presume that the view of the character in the book is also the view of the writer, but…
Shafrir: Sabrina [Blum, Dan’s wife] is very overwhelmed as a mother, and doesn’t really have a support system. It was a crazy, exhilarating thing. Shafrir: I wanted to show that people are complicated, and that everyone, to some extent, is a narcissist. Of course she loves her kids. ***
Author photograph © Willy Somma. Is it exposing Mack, or is it not exposing Mack? I wouldn’t say I was preoccupied with both events, but I was like, Huh. Rumpus: What would you have done? That wore off after a while. So my editor suggested a limited submission, where she’d send it to maybe five or six editors who she knew would be interested in the book, and be willing to give feedback. She ended up leaving-slash-getting fired, and then sued them. In fiction, you have to figure that out, which sounds super obvious. Shafrir: First of all, it was still told from the perspective of three characters, one of whom is no longer in the book at all, and one of whom is now a very minor character. To take the cynical view, it’s a book about technology that doesn’t really exist, and journalism that, for the most part, doesn’t get committed. The Eternal Hunt for Relevance: Doree Shafrir Discusses Startup

By Elon Green
May 12th, 2017

Given the time lag between a book’s conception and publication, the odds of it ultimately seeming of the moment are pretty slim. I had started the book in January and completed a full draft, I guess, in September. What if we sent out the first hundred pages and an outline? I was like, Oh, wow. And yet: her depiction of New York’s technology scene and the journalists who cover it doesn’t feel dusty. It was sold in November of 2015. Who did you choose? And you have to get them to leave, or you fire them. Shafrir: First, I should preface this by saying everyone I spoke to was genuinely nice and generous. So, too, does Katya Pasternack, Shafrir’s scoop-hungry journalist pursuing a sordid story about Mack; she’s at the mercy of traffic goals and the whims of her publisher. Their cutoff for embracing new technology was the fax machine. That’s a nice thing about journalism. We ended up getting an offer from Little, Brown, and an offer from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s ninety-five, and the rest of my grandparents are dead. Which decision makes her the “good” person? She was dating another one of the co-founders, Justin Mateen. It’s was a valuable perspective. Even though BuzzFeed considered itself a startup for the first few years I was there, and Gawker was a startup, and I’ve covered startups,   I’ve never founded a company. I knew where they started, and I knew where they ended. You’re a debut novelist. Then there was the Ellen Pao case against Kleiner Perkins. They’re all kind of shitty people. But I do think it’s important to try to have some perspective on yourself. Rumpus: Is that a freeing aspect of writing fiction? Which, of course, at the time did not seem so simple and now seems pastoral. Hopefully I will be. But I hope that, if I’m ever in a situation that is similar to the one that I put Sabrina in, I will know how to at least ask for help. Shafrir: Of course of I have a fondness for all my characters. Shafrir: For my grandparents, who never went online. Wolfe was a co-founder of Tinder who sued the company for sexual harassment. It’s really hard to sell a partial, and you’re not gonna get as much money. Rumpus: To what extent is this book a cautionary tale? So that was very, certainly, very validating, and also very exciting. Anyone who says that portrait doesn’t ring true is either old, oblivious, or lying. I think the book is really cynical about parenthood and particularly motherhood. So they never got the Internet. Which is a really nice thing to do. That was the hardest thing for me, I think, coming out of journalism, is figuring out the how of the story. I named them. You can be nostalgic for the past, but you can’t let that define you. Especially since she got the evidence in a sort of unsavory fashion. I have one living grandparent, my grandfather on my mother’s side. Rumpus: I listened to a bit of your podcast. Shafrir: No. So, when I first started writing the book, I was giddy with how liberating this felt. Shafrir and I talked recently about Startup and the eternal quest for the story. I’d sent it to my agent, who said it wasn’t ready to be sent out and needed a lot of work, particularly the second two-thirds of the book. Yes, they probably would have gotten scammed at some point, and their personal information would have been phished by someone in Ukraine. Neither of us are terribly old, but it also seems comparatively foreign. So that’s what they’re about. I can, he doesn’t have to say that. But when you’re actually in the middle of it, you’re like, Oh, wait. But I could never email them. Shafrir, veteran journalist and editor at BuzzFeed News, began work on her book in January 2015. I think if we weren’t self-interested, nothing would get done. But I think that moms like Sabrina exist, and they are complicated people. She doesn’t know what to do. We never Skyped, or later, FaceTimed. Do what you need to do to not become Dan. I also thought there also hadn’t been a book set in the New York tech world. That’s one thing I hope people take away from the book. Rumpus: How did the draft at that point differ from the finished book? I was like, Oh my god. She’s a cautionary tale, in that regard. But I didn’t know   they got there. The problem with being in control of the story and your characters is you actually have to be in control of the story and your characters. That’s dark. The New York that so often gets shown in literature—the New York of young, white, privileged people—is very often a New York of media or, to a lesser extent, fashion. She was hesitant. Because she loves her kids. Katya sees herself as a crusader for truth, but when the moment of truth arrives for her, she is paralyzed. Stories about strivers like Mack McAllister—an ostensible wunderkind given millions for an app with a dubious purpose—are published so frequently, it’s pointless even to differentiate them. It was a bit of a Kill Your Darlings moment, where I was like, I like writing you, but you’re just not working for this book. I was like, well, what if we sent out a partial? But when you hear it from people, it’s really stark. The Internet became a thing in the mid-nineties, and they were already in their seventies at that point. With the women I spoke to, I was surprised by the degree to which a lot of the gender stuff had been so real for them. Very depressing. But they’re also not. He can say something totally different. They all met with me for an hour or more on their own time, simply to help me with this book. I look at [Katya’s boss] Dan Blum, a lecherous thirty-nine-year-old editor, and I think, I do not want to be that guy. There were little things, things that probably felt like asides to them, but I were interesting to me. Elon Green is a journalist in Port Washington, New York, and an editor at Longform. A few months before I started writing this book, the Whitney Wolfe Tinder lawsuit happened. To put that in news terms, several months later Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president. So many of the coming-of-age in your twenties, New York-type books are written by people who formerly worked at magazines or publishing houses. Dan is really someone who thinks he’s very self-aware, but in fact has no real perspective on himself or how his actions affect people, and how he moves through the world. More from this author → Those were definitely the pages I had worked on the most, and I felt like were in pretty good shape. I think she doesn’t really know how to ask for help. I don’t know. Rumpus: In the acknowledgments, you thank a bunch of tech folks for insight into their world. I don’t know if they thought, We’re gonna die soon, so what’s the point? Rumpus: Why did you choose to tell this story in particular? But she didn’t want to send it wide, because we didn’t want to blow our shot at selling it. Very interesting that they’re both happening now. One person I mentioned in the acknowledgements told me that people who had come on board in the early stages are sometimes not being able to keep up with the more talented people who come on later. There are very few completely selfless people in the world, which is fine. If they unanimously were   like, This is interesting, but come back when you have a full draft, that is good data. Rumpus: What does the final dedication read? If you’re a good reporter, you’re uncovering how something happens, and telling that story. ***
The Rumpus: So, Startup’s rendering of modern journalism really hit home. But there’s danger both in nostalgia and in over-veneration of the future. The best thing ever. My father’s parents died before the Internet was a thing for most people.