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An Oral History of Nerve

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Will Doig, editor, talks to associate editor Peter Smith

How did you land this job?

I was factchecking at New York magazine and I had written several freelance pieces for Nerve. The first story I did for Nerve was about bonobos, which are a bisexual primate, for the bisexuality issue. They liked it and I wrote some more. Then an editor left, and I was hired to replace her.

So what’s your favorite story about the office?

I can remember the first Nerve party I went to after I started here. Way more people showed up than we realized would, and we didn’t have nearly enough ice or mixers. So I went down to the deli to get tonic, and when I came back up the elevator there was a photoblogger in the lobby; she was covering the party. And she was taking pictures of girls with their pants off on the couch, and I was like, “Oh, so this is one of those Nerve parties.” [laughs]

Do you remember the party that we had the video booth? And you were supposed to go in and exhibitionize, and one of my girlfriend’s friends went in there and flashed the camera and it popped up on Gawker with the caption, “It’s not a Nerve party until an editorial assistant takes her cookies out of the oven” [laughs].

Yeah, as far as the actual office itself goes, there was one night, a few months ago. I was at this party for Out magazine down the street, and I had taken my friend Will there — another Will — and Will was single. He wanted to meet people at the Out party. So we met these two guys, and we were trying to come up with something to do. I thought, maybe it would impress them if we bring them to the Nerve office. We’ve got the keys, and it’d be funny. So we brought them back here. My friend is hitting on this guy, and I’m just there to —

Be a wingman.

Right, exactly. So I’m talking to his friend, and I said, “Do you want to see the roof? It’s really cool.” He’s like, “Sure.” So we climb up the fire escape, and we’re just up there hanging out, and on the way back down, I’m climbing down the ladder and I somehow slipped and fell, but my pants were caught on a screw or something. I fell backward, and the leg of my pants splits all the way from my ankle up to my ass. When I landed, I was bleeding and I had this massive bruise. The guy is like, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “I’m fine!”

So we came back into the office, and they’re like, “What happened to you?” I’m literally almost wearing no pants. I felt really dumb about it. We left pretty quickly after that. And then I had to go out and hail a cab on Broadway like that, and this group of drunk women walked by me, grabbed my pants and pulled them down.

I bet the higher-ups would approve.

I don’t do that as a habit.

Of course. Is there a piece that you’re most proud of writing?

Probably that piece on sexual harassment on the set of The Price is Right, which I’ve wanted to write since I was ten years old. I used to watch Price is Right as a child and think, “I’m totally writing about this for a magazine someday.”

What was it like interviewing Norman Mailer?

I was really nervous. I hardly ever get nervous about interviews anymore, but I was really nervous about that one, because there’s all these stories about Norman Mailer and how like he hates journalists and he’s always drunk, a violent drunk, and how he once drove down to Newsday and headbutted Jimmy Breslin and all these things. I’m like, “Jesus, like, what’s this guy going to do? He’s gonna throw a chair at me or something.” He lives in the top floor of this really grand townhouse in Brooklyn Heights. I got there early, and I was just sort of pacing outside, smoking cigarettes and worrying about going up there. Finally, I go up. His son answers the door. Then I go in, and Norman Mailer is sitting at the dining room table, and he’s four-foot-eight and built like a little balloon. He’s got a cane and he’s wearing boots with duct tape on them — the least intimidating person you’ve ever seen in your life. And he was super-nice. At one point I said something to him during our conversation and he said, “Huh — I never thought of it that way.” And I was like, I just said something Norman Mailer never thought about that way!

You did a bunch of interesting reported pieces.

Yeah, that was when I was working on that story about people who were in prison for criminal transmission of HIV. I’m still corresponding with a lot of those inmates. I send them books because we get so many books here.

What are you hoping to do in the future here?

I’m pretty excited that I’m here right now, actually. When you hear these stories about 1998, it’s tempting to get nostalgic for this thing you weren’t there for. Whenever something is successful, you think, Oh, it would have been so great to be there in the beginning. But it’s pretty great to be here now. Back then, they had to constantly worry about their credibility, and I think, in a lot of ways, the magazine couldn’t be as fun as it can be now. Even though the office was fun, the magazine itself was really highbrow and New Yorker-ish. They constantly had to prove that they weren’t porn, basically. And now, we’re here at a time where it’s not a problem.

Generally.

Generally. Oh, let me add one more interview I’m proud of. When Rufus took us for our yearly holiday lunch last December, I knew I had to leave early because I was interviewing Maureen Dowd from the New York Times at two. I knew I shouldn’t drink too much, but everyone was having fun, and Rufus was paying, so I drank three sidecars and then realized that I was drunker than I should be for an interview with Maureen Dowd.

Excellent.

So a little before two, I say I have to go do the interview, and Michael looks me hard in the eyes and says, “Are you drunk?” And I say, “Nope!” And I go upstairs and call Maureen Dowd, and found that I was able to ask her several questions I never would have been able to ask sober, such as whether she had ever faked an orgasm.

What did she say?

She said, “That is way, way, way too personal.”

 

Peter Smith, associate editor, talks to editor Will Doig

Nerve was your first journalism job.

Yeah, I was an intern, and they started giving me movie reviews right away. I got to interview the guitarist from the Darkness. That was my big break.

Any other interviews you’re particularly fond of?

I was thrilled to interview David Lynch. That was amazing. An incredibly Lynchian half hour. He was very cheery and upbeat and abstract. I was like, “So tell me about the process of putting together Inland Empire,” which was his new movie. And he was like, “Ideas! There’s nothing without ideas!”

There’s nothing without ideas?

“One is lost without ideas!” he said. And then after all of this Boy Scout peppiness, toward the end of the interview, he got going on this foul-tempered tirade about how people dote on their pets. And how smokers get no privileges. It was a Dennis Hopper moment.

Your family, being from liberal Massachusetts, I assume has no qualms about you working here?

Yeah, they quickly stopped making jokes about it. They got the gist pretty quickly.

You started dating Nerve‘s photo editor, Rachel, when you were an intern.

Yeah. It was at [a Nerve party] that we first talked, and I was totally crushing. I was delivering the mail at the time, and I handed her this postcard for a gallery show one day and asked her to take me. Then I felt like I had terribly overstepped my bounds, which I suppose I would have if she hadn’t liked me. I still felt on edge about it until we actually went, and then got drunk afterward and just really hit it off. She was just out of a relationship, and we were super-secretive about it, but I think everyone knew immediately.

It got around, yeah.

And you know why it got around? Because Rachel told everybody! And when I got sent to blog SXSW, I had been there for a couple days, and I was just writing about the bands and movies and stuff, and Michael was like, “Why isn’t he getting drunk and partying? Why isn’t he trying to get laid!?” So Rachel had to tell Michael we were dating. That was a little awkward.

Did you two support each other creatively while you were working together?

Rachel’s a great reader and she’s a really good judge of what works. She always gave me good notes.

I think there’s this sort of mythology behind the Nerve offices and the Nerve staff. Because the magazine is so personal, I find people are interested in who’s behind it. Do you like telling people you work here?

Well, what’s interesting to me is, I barely think of it as a sexually themed website anymore. It’s only when we’re doing intern training and walking someone through the site for the first time that I’m like, “Oh my God, this is filthy!”

What do you think about the proliferation of online journalism?

I’m glad it exists for my own sake, and I think there’s some great stuff. I sometimes find the proliferation of opinions hard to process. There’s sort of a hall-of-mirrors quality to living with modern media. There are so many angles coming from so many different directions. The way I wanted to put it was that, on the internet, everyone would be famous for fifteen people. Which I thought was a clever new neologism, but it turns out someone already said it. It wasn’t that I didn’t come up with it, it’s that someone came up with it before me. That’s the internet for you. Proving our point.
Ada Calhoun, consulting editor and editor-in-chief, Babble.com

How did you first hear of Nerve?

I first heard about Nerve in 2000 when I was interviewing Lisa Carver for the Austin Chronicle, where I was working as an arts reporter while I finished college. I was a big fan of her zine Rollerderby and had wrangled a profile for the Chronicle’s sex issue. I locked myself in the office’s plush interview room, called her in New Hampshire and we talked for an hour — mostly about America, religion and girls with guns. At the end, she suggested I go on Nerve and try to “win her husband” in a contest she was having as part of “The Lisa Diaries.” Although I had no interest in sleeping with her husband, I went on Nerve and got promptly obsessed. I loved the way it looked and sounded. It was smart and fun and genuinely hot. I’d never much liked porn or literary magazines or online anything, but I loved Nerve.

You wrote a piece for Nerve from Austin, right?

On campus not long after that, I spotted a sign requesting volunteers for a clinical sex study. I signed up and pitched a story on the experience to Nerve, who went for it. I found myself in a campus lab watching porn while hooked up to sensors and ingesting experimental medication. The resulting story, “Weird Science,” was by far the craziest story I’d ever written up until that point and I was giddily proud of it. I remember running into an ex at a coffee shop right after it came out and casually mentioning that I’d just written a story for Nerve and just glorying in how much power that word seemed to have. For my contributor’s photo, I used a polaroid of me in a blonde wig looking surprised and I used this bio: “Ada Calhoun writes about theater and books for The Austin Chronicle and is majoring in Sanskrit. She is great in bed.” I felt like I’d found my true home. I emailed my editor, Emily Nussbaum, to ask her what I had to do to get a job or internship at Nerve and she never wrote me back.

How did you end up working for Nerve?

Four years later, I was back living in New York, having worked for Vogue and New York magazine and various other high-profile print magazines and I heard Nerve was hiring. I applied and got the job and promptly wrote a string of personal essays attacking the virility of McSweeney’s men, praising the teenage girl-middle-aged-man connection and saying various other things no one had ever let me say before. I wound up writing Nerve’s flagship blog, Scanner, where I created features like “Crush of the Week,” which I feel like encompasses my feeling about Nerve.

What has the magazine left you with?

I think what Nerve‘s always done is made its readers feel the way you feel when you have a crush on someone: suddenly more attractive, more exciting and excited, more alive. And that’s how I’ve felt the whole time I’ve worked here: sort of happy and flushed. Working at Nerve is like being perpetually two drinks into a really, really fun night on the town.

 

Gwynne Watkins, Nerve consulting editor and Babble editor, talks to Nerve editor Will Doig

You’ve been working for Nerve longer than any one else here, except for Rufus. How did you end up here?

I came on in 1999. It was the summer after my first year of college. I had started reading the site when I was eighteen because I saw a front-of-the-book piece in a women’s magazine. It had Genevieve’s photo and this little blurb that was like, “This woman cofounded a sex magazine for men and women with her boyfriend.” I thought it was the most awesome and revolutionary thing I’d ever heard. Of course, the internet was sort of a new thing. My family had this dialup connection, and college had this T-1. I was so excited to be able to see all this elicit stuff. I was like, I can look at pornography! But it turned out all that was kind of boring and messy. Nerve was just the opposite.

It was sex for bookish people.

Yeah. I hadn’t taken any women’s studies courses yet, so I hadn’t ever really seen honest writing about sex by women. I remember a couple stories — Lisa Carver’s stories and the frankness and no-holds-barred way she talked about sex. It was so exciting to me to see women writing like that.

So you applied for an internship.

I didn’t think I’d get it. To me, it was this other cool New York world that I wasn’t a part of. And my father is a minister, so I never thought they’d let me commute to the city to work at a sex magazine. But I got a call that summer from Lorelei. It was the first interview for a non-waitressing job I’d ever had. They’d just moved to the office on Broadway, and out of Rufus and Genevieve’s apartment. I was so intimidated. And Lorelei came in, and she was wearing jeans and was all casual, and she was like, “We had this crazy party last week, and people were naked!” She was so shocked. She was like, “Butt naked!”

She was talking about the first Nerve party.

Yeah, they had just gotten the space so they had this big party. And the fact that she seemed so shocked that people had gotten naked in the office made me feel more comfortable.

What were you doing once you were first hired on staff?

They almost didn’t know what to do with me at first. I worked on a couple ad campaigns because no one was really doing that. I came up with “truth is sexier than fiction” as the slogan for “The Lisa Diaries” because we were competeing with this fictional column about a call girl at Salon. And I did slush-pile reading — that’s all people would send, was this terrible erotica. I remember there was this one story about this woman being seduced by Bigfoot, which is just imprinted in my mind.

What was the office atmosphere like?

It was really fun. It was tight knit because it had started so recently, and because the dot-com boom was still really underway. Everyone felt like they were working on something really important. There was this noble mission in making this smart literate sex site and that we were really doing this for the good of people. We’d go drinking every week. We’d do karaoke. I was underage and they’d sneak me into these East Village bars. It was a lot of fun.

When did the magazine start to become more populist, and less focused only on literature and poetry?

I’ve been talking to these other early people, and I think part of the transition was the community space and the advice column and the personals, which all happened at the same time. Emma and Lorelei made the other editors realize that being more accessible and chatty and pop-culture savvy actually expanded their audience rather than turning away people. And I think the site got broader as various editors came in and added various elements.

What was it like when Spring Street Networks, the personals company, moved in?

I was actually working here only part time during college, and when I came back in I was shocked at how many people they had crammed into that office. I had come to this office that had a dozen people when I first started, and all of a sudden there were sixty. And we had extra people for the print magazine, too — they worked in the same office as the online magazine, but they felt separate. The print magazine was really exciting because I think everyone liked having something we could hold in our hands. No one was used to websites yet. People printed out articles from the website to read them on paper.

I imagine the print magazine felt like it proved Nerve‘s legitimacy at a time when being online didn’t necessarily do that.

Yes. There was a lot of press about how Nerve was finally going legit. Like this was the logical next step. And with the print magazine we were able to get bigger names. But we also had limits with the print magazine that we didn’t have online. Like male nudity I remember was a big problem. Everyone was really excited the first time we were able to get a penis past the publishers. It was in a fashion spread, and it was hidden under a necktie. No one was sure if women would go out and actually buy such a magazine, and I think that’s one of the reasons it didn’t succeed — women didn’t pick it up.

Right, this was a time when sex was far less prevalent at the newsstand. Even lad mags with all the nudity on their covers weren’t really big yet.

Yeah, and it was before the Clinton scandal.

With so much transition in the office, the online magazine itself must have changed as well.

I think what happened was the magazine floundered a bit in terms of what audience it was appealing to, and then it struck a balance again. For while it was torn between the dating content and the pop-culture content and the highbrow content, and I think what’s happened now is there’s been a nice evening out of all that content. Now we have an enormous amount of content, and I think by embracing it all Michael sent it into a direction of, we can be all of these things. It definitely needed to break out of that New Yorker highbrow style.

Looking back on all your years here, how do you feel about Nerve today?

It’s a completely different place today than the place I worked as a teenager. Some of it is reflected through the fact that I was nineteen when I started here. It was my first real job, and I had a crush on everybody. I was so excited to be part of this. It was something new, all these crazy dotcom parties — you really felt like you were in this heady haze of something young and fresh and vital that was going to change everything. I think that feeling disappeared with the crash. But I feel lucky that I was someplace where that was very much alive, and Nerve was the place to be during that time. What’s nice now is that it feels like I work at a respectable magazine. At the time a lot of people didn’t understand the idea of a magazine being online. People would be confused that I was calling from a website.

It’s almost as if you and the magazine grew up in a parallel way.

I guess I do feel Nerve and I grew up together. I think the reason I’ve stayed so long is that it’s always changing. I haven’t gotten bored or tired of it because there’s always something new. Today I’m working at Babble, which, two or three years ago, no one would have thought we could do this. But the company has always been like that. Rufus has never been afraid to try new things, and to take the talent we’ve already got and apply it to something new. And that’s something I like.
Michael Martin, editorial director, talks to editor Will Doig

How did you end up at Nerve?

I was a senior editor at Gear, the ill-fated “smart men’s magazine.” I had a great boss there, who had been ousted. He knew Rufus, Em and Lo. He heard that Rufus was looking for someone to come in and edit the site. He put my name in, and I came in, talked to Rufus, talked to Em and Lo, and I got the job. And I bailed from Gear just in time.

Before it went under?

It lasted for about six months to a year after I left. But it was in a fairly dramatic death spiral. A freelance writer literally pitched a tent in the office because he hadn’t been paid. What was nice about the place, though, was that it valued narrative, or tried to. It wasn’t a joke book. I started at Nerve in January 2002.

What was the atmosphere of the whole dot-com thing at the time?

There was the dot-com thing, and there was New York in general, and as a period they’re inseparable, at least to me. I don’t know how much is reality and how much was me, but it was a very scary time. It felt like the ground could open up and swallow you at any moment. People in my age group, three years older and three years younger, a lot of people left. It was a very insecure time. I came in here, and things seemed to be organized and people weren’t frantic. But there was a very small budget. I started doing a lot of interviews, because one of the things I wanted to do was to plug the magazine into pop culture. They’d done a few things, but I thought there was a big opportunity to add music and film and TV. So because there was no money, I started doing a lot of that. Then we started the Screening Room, which led to the Film Lounge.

You wanted to take it in a more pop-culture direction. Would you say that was your main vision for the magazine?

That was part of it. I thought Nerve could be sexier, funnier, more relatable.

It’s amazing to me that when I started here just two years ago, there was no blog, and I think only one photoblog. Just Siege at the time. How integral do you feel that evolution has been?

I think the blogs are great because they solved, in editorspeak, a problem, which was how do you take the front of the book online? Before blogs, there was no easy way to really package quick hits, and the blogs infused immediacy and urgency. As far as the photoblogs, one of the things I wanted to do when I came here — and was frustrated because I was not able to do it — was to introduce first-person columns, addictive narratives, find a new, not-insipid Sex and the City. Well, our first photoblog was Siege, which is essentially that to the nth degree.

When the idea to start Babble came about, were you at all trepidatious about it taking the company in such a radically different direction?

Not at all. From the first second, I couldn’t wait for it to launch. I thought it was a chance to reinvent the category in a smart, funny, real, honest way, which is what the Nerve brand stands for. So it tweaked my editorial pleasure center from the beginning.

Any stories that you’ve done personally that stick out?

Interviews: Mary Gaitskill, David Cronenberg, Tilda Swinton. It’s great to be able to sit down with these cultural heavyweights and do a long, old-Rolling Stone, Paris Review -type interview. I fantasize about becoming a postmillennial Charlie Rose, so they’re very satisfying to do. I don’t, by the way, agree that people only want to read 500 words online. I think people deserve more credit, and I they’ll read longer pieces, as they’re fresh ideas and great stories well told.

What’s the most challenging thing about running Nerve?

I think the sense of the unknown, the sense that we’re operating outside formulas. I got a degree in journalism, magazine journalism, which already feels like having a degree in a dead language, and I’m not ten years out of college yet. And I worked at traditional print magazines that were very “front of the book, feature well, back of the book, pour the concrete into the space, who’s going to be on the cover?” From the beginning, this, obviously, was not like that. Things change fast, different models come at you, at high speed. You have to work the psychic hotline a bit, every day.