An Oral History

Suan Dominus

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Today, Babble editor-in-chief Ada Calhoun talks to the former editor-in-chief of the Nerve print magazine, Susan Dominus.

When I left New York magazine, the source of several Nerve staff members, the managing editor said it would be a blotch on my resume because it was a sex magazine, and online. Did they say that to you when you left New York, and when was that?

I came on in 1999, which didn’t feel like the early days of Nerve then, but now it does! Well, I asked the editor in chief, Caroline Miller, if she thought some places wouldn’t hire me because I’d worked at a sex magazine, and she said, “You don’t want to work anywhere that wouldn’t hire you based on that.” I thought that was great advice.

It certainly didn’t hurt your career. You’ve done a lot for the Times since.

And certainly it helped my dating life! I met my husband at a party. We joke about it. If we had met and I’d said I was an editor in the Simon & Schuster children’s-book division he’s probably have thought he’d met a dozen girls like that. I saw his eyes light up when I said what I did. Of course, I had a boyfriend before my husband who worked for a conservative judge, as a clerk. There was a dinner for the clerks and their significant others, and he said he didn’t want me to come because he didn’t want to explain what I did. I think it’s safe to say that was the beginning of the end of our relationship.

How did your other friends feel about your running a sex magazine?

The whole sex thing wasn’t really my agenda. My goal wasn’t to promote free love or non-judgment. It’s true that I was pretty non-judgmental about most transgressive sex if it was happening between consenting adults. My goal was to get great writing out into the universe, and Nerve was a great way to do this. I wrote an essay about the things people told me when they found out I worked at Nerve. One guy I’d known for a long time told me his father was a crossdresser. Another woman I knew made her boyfriend have sex with a dog when she was twelve. What I learned is that people are dying to tell someone these crazy—or not-so-crazy—details of their lives. And you realize there are very few outlets.

There are blogs.

Well, certainly there are more blogs now, but I think that’s too public. They just need to whisper it to the reeds.

What was the Nerve office like?

In the very beginning it was classic dot-com world. There was a huge freezer of ice cream. This ice cream company couldn’t pay for advertising, so in exchange for free advertising they supplied a freezer and ice cream to put in it. That to me was the greatest thing in the world. The brave new world of work. There was beer in the fridge, too. People rarely drank it but it was nice to know it was there.

There was music playing all the time, but as an old-media person I couldn’t work with it on, so there was some tension over that. It was a very quiet place to work. It was a loft. If you spoke too loudly, people would give you dirty looks. It felt loose, but it was the hardest working place I’ve ever been.

How debauched were your colleagues?

I don’t think any employee of Nerve was ever that debauched, actually. Jack certainly played the field, but a lot of us were in serious relationships. We were pretty studious. There was this idea, at once point, that we were going to take a staff photo naked. Everyone but me thought it was a hilarious idea. I put an end to that.

So you marked the end of the hedonistic days?

I might make that shameful claim, yes. But certainly, the parties were wild. There was definitely some public oral sex happening at that weird HBO party. A lot of the things that our readers and writers were doing were sort of creative, and we tried to be non-judgmental about it.

What drew you to Nerve in the first place?

I was working at New York magazine and edited an issue of the hottest New Yorkers under thirty, or the New Yorkers of ’97 or ’98 or whatever. There was an awards event and everything. When I read the one about Rufus and Genevieve, I thought, these people have the dream job. It has literary merit, it’s hot, it’s working with the dot-com moment. I thought it was brilliant. When I heard they were starting a print magazine I got really excited about it and was really blown away by how good the writing on the website was. I’d wanted to be a writer with a capital “w”, but I’d become a reporter. Writing was not always so literary at magazines. At New York magazine, you couldn’t call up any writer on the planet, ask them to write something about sex and have them say yes, but at Nerve you could.

Who were some of the writers you were most excited to call?

Maybe Amy Bloom? Tom Perrotta. I don’t know if it worked out, but he thought about it. Mary Gaitskill. that was exciting. Martha McPhee. Robert Olen Butler. That’s one of my favorite pieces I ever published. It was about a young boy who knows it’s the last day of the world and he wants to see the mysteries of his sweetheart’s body before he dies, and he does. And it’s all worth it. There were also some very famous writers who wrote under pseudonyms, but I won’t say who.

How were the parties, beside the famous HBO one?

Well, for a photo shoot for the December issue of the print magazine, we decided to do an office Christmas party gone wild. Civilians were downing punch and making out with their boyfriends and taking clothing off. At one point, some scrawny guy came to deliver pizza and someone pulled him into the party, put a hat on him and made him Santa. And soon, he was sitting there making out with two girls.

How did you get rid of the delivery boy?

I don’t remember. I think it was the best delivery he ever made.

Why did you leave?

I got fired. I was there for around two years. Then the print magazine folded. There was no money for me to be there. I felt okay about it. It was exhausting. I slept at the office some nights. I was never not thinking about how we were going to fill the issue. I’d just had a story run in the Times magazine, so it was a good time. I’d come from old media and was very “I work from nine to five, ” and at Nerve I saw how it didn’t have to be that way. So it was easier to go freelance.

I find it amazing that almost half of Nerve‘s readership is women. It must be the first time in history men and women have read the same sex magazine.

To be perfectly honest, there was feminist discussion going around about it, but I was never that interested in the feminist-sex-magazine angle. I just wanted to be somewhere that was doing great writing about anything. I was an English major at college. I was just a voracious reader. I had this body of knowledge about fiction and fiction writers. And there was a sense at the time that the days of great magazine writing had come and gone. But from 1997-2000, Nerve was one of a few places that was publishing great writing and literary work. It makes me feel hopeful that when people say print media is dying that some other form will come along to save the literary essay. But there are very few places besides Nerve that publish fiction now.

Do you miss Nerve?

Well, now I just work alone in my little office, and I do miss being around such talented, creative, open-minded people. You had a sense that anything was possible and that even if something had been done before, it could be done better. I think that came from Genevieve and Rufus. It was a very exciting time.