As part of our Ten Years of Nerve retrospective, we bring you a series of interviews with the people who made, and continue to make, the publication happen. Today, current Nerve editor Will Doig talks with co-founder and CEO Rufus Griscom about Nerve’s creation, office parties, personals, surviving the dotcom implosion, and appearing naked on network television.
Why did you decide to start an online sex magazine for men and women?
I was a young editor at a small publishing house, and I realized my affection for serious literature was a liability. So I started thinking, maybe the intersection of a subject everybody’s really interested in with serious introspective personal essays and fiction could be economically feasible. I started talking with some friends and with Genevieve about what existed in the sex/culture magazine space, and it seemed like Playboy had been eroding for decades. I’m led to believe in the ’50s and early ’60s Playboy was actually a cultural force, but they never found an appropriate response to the rise of the feminist movement in the ’60s and ’70s; the publication never really evolved. So we thought, the vacuum of what was once Playboy offers an opportunity. So that’s how the early conversations went, and one of the first things I did was to have those conversations in the presence of rich people, because I really hoped that eventually one of them would say, “Hey, I really like that idea. Here’s some money.”
Online magazines were brand new, so you basically had no template to follow. How did you know how to do it?
We didn’t. But what I did know a little bit about was how to publish books, and we thought, if we could gather this great collection of writers and get them to write powerfully and professionally about this subject, I think we could sell a book to defray the costs of the online magazine. And sure enough, six months after we launched, we sold a book to Doubleday for enough money to pay for most of our expenses, though we still lost money those first few years. The other factor was, we were friendly with the founders of Feed magazine, Steven Johnson and Stephanie Simon, and Word.com, which was Marisa Bowe, and we spent a lot of time buying them lunches and dinners and picking their brains.
How did you get these big-name writers to write for an unknown magazine?
We just wrote letters to all our favorite writers, fawning and ass-shellacking, saying, “Hey, we started this magazine. We’re sweet, wide-eyed young people. Will you please contribute to it? Even just ten words?” I remember spending two months doing nothing but writing these letters—letters in the mail. At the time, I had just read Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. He had this incredible description of a date-stamper that librarians use that pivots and kisses the paper and then retracts back up like a lunar lander—there was something slightly perverse about the way he described all this nonsexual stuff, and I basically accused him of that in this letter, really poured my heart into it. So we’re sort of tapping our fingers thinking, What if nobody responds to these letters? This is all we have. And I remember receiving a ten-minute message on our answering machine from Nicholson Baker, and he was like, “Rufus, I’m traveling with my family in Spain and I got your letter forwarded by my agent, and I want you to know that it’s really one of the most wonderful letters I’ve ever received, and your magazine sounds great and I really want to do something for you . . . ” And I almost wept. I was just so elated. It was the first response we got back from anyone. And as it turned out, Nicholson Baker never wrote anything for us. I wrote him another five letters and he never responded to any of them. But he left that one message, and I’d like to thank him for that. It buoyed me and drove us forward.
What was the response to those letters generally?
We got a tremendous response. Rick Moody had just written Purple America, he’d just become the hot novelist of the moment and he agreed to write something. Joycelyn Elders had just been fired as Surgeon General for talking about masturbation and we got her to write something. And then we got this out-of-print interview with Norman Mailer, and so the list of early writers we could list, that’s what made the Newsweek and the Time pieces come out.
Can you recall any gaffes from those early days? Things you look back on today and think to yourself, I can’t believe we did it that way?
Well, really the whole original homepage design was, in retrospect, this bizarre, distorted, mistaken, now very dated vision of the future. We were like, “Oh, it’s almost like virtual reality, like you’re in this living room!” It was incredibly naïve.
Like Tomorrowland at Disney World. It was supposed to be the future, but now it just looks like the ’70s.
Exactly. It was like, “The future will be soap coming out of the showerhead.” It was that kind of mentality.
What was the atmosphere of the “office” when Nerve was still being published out of your loft in Tribeca?
I would say it was very fun and very funny. It seemed like every two weeks there was a magazine doing a shoot or a TV show doing a segment on us—we got an absurd and unwarranted amount of press attention in the first two years. If you picture nine friends in somebody’s house doing something they consider to be fun, that was the environment, more so than a business environment. And there was a lot about that that was naïve, but it worked for a while.
What was funny about it was that we were really—I wouldn’t say prudish people, but a collection of people who were prone to blushing. And that was by design. The original premise was, what’s interesting about sex is the discomfort, the blush zone, and if you hire editors who haven’t blushed in a decade, then this isn’t going to work at all. And this is the way we were most misunderstood. People assumed after the ’70s that anyone focusing on the subject of sex was necessarily going to have a political agenda, whereas we just wanted to gnaw on taboos like squeaky dog toys. The taboos are what make it interesting, and the second that everyone in the country acts like they’re in some pro-sex commune in California, the subject will be completely uninteresting. And I think that’s somewhat true to this day.
The year 1997 was an interesting time to talk about sex. On the one hand, we were all supposed to feel completely comfortable talking about the issues of the day — sexual harassment, AIDS, etc. But in reality, people weren’t ready — porn wasn’t ubiquitous yet, the Clinton scandal hadn’t happened yet. I don’t think people were nearly as comfortable as they pretended to be.
It’s true. We did feel like we were buying real estate just outside the nice neighborhood, in a kind of rough part of town, believing that gentrification would soon sweep over our neighborhood — the neighborhood being sexual candor. And I think that did prove to be true. Part of the gambit was, though there may not be advertiser support for this kind of content now, there may be in some number of years.
Can you talk about some of the promotional stunts you pulled in the early years?
My gosh. There were many, many funny times. We had this succession of parties, each wilder than the last. The first party maybe cost us $700. We had big prints of photos that had been published on Nerve on the wall, so it was just a little bit edgy. JFK Jr. showed up in a low baseball cap; that created some buzz. The parties became progressively larger and wilder, and we started having these exhibitionist booths where people could do whatever they wanted. I remember sitting at a party—which were both fun and stressful for me because we tended to have investors show up—and we had a thirty-foot-high projection on the wall of what was going on in the exhibitionist booth, and I kept trying to steer this investor to face me because I could see our poetry editor getting a blowjob from his wife on the wall. The investor kept getting ready to turn around to use the restroom or something, and I kept trying to more furiously engage him in conversation.
Another crazy thing we did was, we had this very interesting negotiation with 60 Minutes II, which was doing a segment on Silicon Alley. And they would say, “Of course, we don’t want to influence anything you do, but if you did happen to do crazier things it would be more likely we’d run the segment.” So we had just launched the NerveCenter, and we thought, wouldn’t it be great to run around completely naked and pass out cards inviting people to become members of the NerveCenter community? So we rented this white van, and we had a big disco ball on the end of a pole, and we would pull up to street corners, open the doors, pop out the disco ball and light and crank the tunes, and go running out in the buff. We were wearing hats, scarves and running shoes—some of the women in the office were wearing very wide scarves. We’d originally hired other people to do this because we weren’t sure how well this would go over with grandma, and because it’s national television. But we had a bottle of whiskey in the back and ended up doing it as well. And my thinking was, this is CBS, there’s no way they’re going to show our butts or genitalia, so who cares? And after this thing aired, a friend of mine said to me, “I saw your Johnson on national television.” We went back and froze the frames, and there were about three frames of that.
You and Genevieve were the very public face of Nerve. When your relationship ended, were you worried it would affect the image of the company?
It was definitely a worry, but I think Nerve had enough traction that it wasn’t a huge issue. And also, mercifully, Genevieve was a really grounded, wise person. I think it was extraordinary that we were able to work together for another year after that, and pretty smoothly. The New York Times Magazine did a page on the breakup. That’s the reason everybody says not to work with your girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse—it can be apocalyptic for a business with two founders. But I think it was not unlike the situation where you divorce with a baby and you don’t want the baby to be hurt.
What about the ill-fated HBO reality show?
We signed a deal with HBO in ’99. It was supposed to be a show that would be interlarded with reality segments and shots of the office. We said to them, “This is a magazine. We spend most of the day typing, it’s not particularly exciting footage.” It was also true that this was right around the time the internet bubble was imploding, there was no more funding, we were about to have to contract the size of the staff and I was really thinking, We need this show to work. Had the economic situation been different, we would have said this is not for us. But it was a really interesting idea, and there were portions of it that I think were quite good and others that were not so good. We had veto power — we could kill the whole show. That was really the only leverage we had, and we almost did it. It ended up running as a one-time special and they aired it like fifty times. It was a period of identity crisis for us.
Why was it an identity crisis?
There was all this economic pressure on us to become more commercial, and these HBO folks really wanted us to be much more sensationalistic, to be something other than what we were. The biggest, craziest party we’ve ever thrown was shot by HBO. There were five roaming camera crews. Despite our protests, they lit the entire party to be brighter than any room you’ve ever been in. You’re getting a suntan at ten p.m. while drinking a cocktail, and I’m thinking, this is a terrible party environment. And there was a guy at the party wearing nothing but a sock. Now, we’d had some crazy stuff at our parties, but we’d never had a guy wearing a sock. HBO had hired this guy. And the place was full of these buff, muscley Miami waiters wearing Speedos, and all these things that were not at all our aesthetic or sensibility. But HBO was spending like six figures on the evening, so our hands were somewhat tied. Although we really put our foot down on a few things.
They wanted us to wear certain clothes that we refused to wear, and we were to drive up to the party in the Nervemobile. It was all very orchestrated.
What was the Nervemobile?
It was this 1975 Buick LeSabre convertible with flames on the side and a big N. It was pretty fantastic. I’d love to get that back. But at any rate, over the course of this evening, I think we as a company blew a fuse. After that HBO party, we didn’t throw a party for a few years. And that, I think, marked the apex of the hype. There was this moment where we realized it’s not about the hype, that’s not why we’re doing this.
Soon after all this hype came the dot-com crash. It was the Nerve Personals innovation that pretty much pulled the company through. It seems like before Nerve Personals, very few people used personal ads. Nerve sort of made it seem okay to meet people that way.
Somehow Nerve Personals arguably remains the smart, cool downtown dating scene in big cities around the country, and that to me is extraordinary, because we didn’t actively cause that to happen. We didn’t do targeted marketing, we just threw personals up on the site. And that’s what made it possible for us to survive 2001. I was really obsessed with this idea that if you have fifty words to advertise yourself to your future soulmate, never have words been more important. The personal ad is one of the highest stakes genres ever.
Was there ever a moment you considered closing up shop?
No. I had bankruptcy envy in the sense that all my friends’ companies were going out of business and they were all out drinking ’til four in the morning. There really was this sense of pre-apocalypse partying, and some of them had squirreled away a little money, so they were traveling and such. Meanwhile, we were working twice as hard. But I was just in a survivalist mode. I certainly never took it for granted that we would survive. But from instinct, I never thought it was dead, and until it was we were going to duke it out.
Do you have any favorite stories or columns from the past ten years?
We had a number of cases where writers would give us a personal essay and then call and say, “You can’t publish that. It’s too personal and too revealing and could destroy my relationship with the community.” And that would always make me think, perfect! Lisa Carver wrote lots of pieces that were incredibly brave. Catherine Texier wrote this piece called “Diary of a Breakup” that later became a pretty big book called Breakup about her divorce. Lucy Grealy, who later died, wrote this piece called “Autobiography of a Body.” She had jaw cancer and a long series of operations, and to compensate for not feeling beautiful she went through a slutty phase and described it in wrenching detail. There was one guy who had lost his left hand and he described how girls were turned on by his condition and it was this weird power and leverage he had in a relationship. I found these kinds of personal essays particularly powerful and liked the fact that no one else on the planet would publish them.
Is there a single thing you can point to as a measure of Nerve‘s cumulative success?
I would say this: One reason this was all so high-stakes from the outset was that I completely horrified my family by starting Nerve. I have a pretty conservative family. My father asked that I be sure to tell all journalists my name should have “Jr.” at the end. (I just couldn’t do it. I said, Dad, if you decide to give your son your own name, you’re rolling the dice, baby.) So that raised the stakes for me considerably. No one told my grandmother for years, and then one day she was in Barnes & Noble and saw our book, and the next time she saw me she pulled me aside and said, “I saw your book, Rufus, and I can only say one thing: You’d better make some money out of this.” So that’s my grandmother’s definition of cumulative success, and she’s not alone. it’s always been our objective to make Nerve both really, really good and commercially successful. Most cultural products are either one or the other. I think Nerve was really, really good before it was commercially successful, but I like to think we are in the process of pulling off both.