An Oral History

Emily Nussbaum

Pin it

Today, current Nerve editor Will Doig talks to Emily Nussbaum, former editor-in-chief.

What were you doing when you started at Nerve?

I was in grad school for literature at NYU. A friend had read the stuff I’d written for Lingua Franca, some of which was about gender studies and sexual politics, and thought I was a good match for Nerve. Somehow, I was invited to the first party even though I didn’t know anyone from Nerve. It was a very good party, downtown at a dark bar.

I had been doing a little bit of freelance stuff for the New York Times Magazine. One of the short pieces I was doing was a timeline tracing a day at a foot-fetish website. I turned it in and it got killed; I think it was a little too racy for them. So I wrote a piece for Nerve about having done the reported assignment. It was primarily about having worn these clunky, hipster, downtown-girl Minnie Mouse shoes. As soon as I entered the [foot-fetish website] office there was a complete divide — all the women who came in were wearing these incredible crazy stiletto heels in silver and red, the men had leather man shoes, and it created this weird dynamic. So I wrote a funny little piece like that and gave it to Jack Murnighan, and he liked it and they published it. He called me into lunch to talk about assignments, and he told me he was thinking of leaving, and he recommended me.

What was one of the first pieces you worked on?

I had been watching the first season of Big Brother on the web. Nobody watched the first season of Big Brother, but I found it really fascinating. There was this stripper on there named Jordan who was like the second person kicked off; I solicited her to write a first-person essay. It was an early reality-television experience before a lot of people knew how that stuff worked.

I brought this essay with me when I came to Nerve, and the second or third day I was there Rufus brought us all into a meeting and told us we were going to be on a reality-TV show for HBO. I was the only person on staff who had really watched reality television, and I was the only one who was like, “No way. This is a terrible idea.” I understood that you had no control over the editing. It was an incredibly flawed show and, in some ways, would have been better if it actually was more of a pure reality-TV show.

What happened with that show?

They showed one episode. It was segments based on the print magazine, interspersed with shots of this big party HBO threw that some people enjoyed but which I did not like. It was lit up like a film set. It was totally the opposite of that first Nerve party, which had been so dark and sexy and fun. I wore a pink wig as a disguise, which was ridiculous in retrospect because it only made me more conspicuous.

Was the film crew in the Nerve offices?

I think they were, but none of that made it in. There was like one shot of everyone running to an editorial meeting where you can see me running from behind.

A lot of the “voices of Nerve,” like Em and Lo and Grant Stoddard, were there while you were there. What was it like working with them?

When I came on board, Em and Lo were already a real force, and were actually kind of intimidating because they had been there from the beginning. I edited some of their pieces. Em wrote a great piece about having unsafe sex that was a personal essay and very candid, and it attracted an enormous amount of response, I think to the point where we had to shut down the boards. Lo wrote a really cool essay about nostalgia for her high-school boyfriend. I was totally out of the loop on the Lo & Joey relationship. I was like Mr. Magoo. I could never figure out what stage any of the hookups were in.

And Grant was fantastic. I didn’t understand who he was at first, he was just this elfin British intern guy who had won the job by sleeping with Lisa Carver, in a contest, I think, before I got there. And I totally underestimated him. He told me he didn’t read much, and I was a big literary snob, so I didn’t have any idea how good a writer he was until he started doing the “I Did It For Science” essays — these first-person “human guinea pig” essays that were really outrageous but also often touching and insightful. And I loved that he would do anything, try out all these ridiculous fetishes, like sploshing.

The other piece that I assigned that was controversial was, we had a book on bestiality and I called up Pete Singer, the animal-rights philosopher. He wrote this piece, and it got unbelievable press. Everyone picked it up and said, “Peter Singer Defends Bestiality.” It was a little more complicated than that. He was talking about it as an ethical issue. But again, the boards went wild and we had to shut them down, which I considered to be a major success.

How do you look back on your tenure there today?

It was a hilarious job, really, and a fun place to work. I came on board very late in the dot-com boom — after the bust, and I witnessed the demise of the print magazine — but the office still had the goofy, let’s-put-on-a-show feeling, and I do think we published some wonderful writing. I thought it was strange that people would so often make fun of the strongest things we published: the really confessional pieces, the personal essays, the literary writing that got called pretentious. I liked those braver, weirder essays, like Lisa Carver’s writing or Jay Kirk’s short story about cannibalism — the ones that could never get published anywhere else. It was kind of satisfying defending the magazine at parties, when people would say, “Oh, that’s sooo unsexy, to write about sex.” What Nerve was trying to do was genuinely original and it hit the mark a lot of the time.