When journalist Robin Marantz Henig wrote a piece “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” for the New York Times Magazine in 2010, she hit a cultural nerve: The article went viral, ultimately becoming the most-emailed story of the year. Her sense that there was more to this story led her to collaborate with her own journalist daughter Samantha Henig (web editor for the New York Times Magazine) on Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? which Kirkus named one of Fall's 30 most anticipated non-fiction books.
Check out our recent interview with Aman Sethi on life and death in Dehli.
Here, the authors discuss the pleasures and challenges of their mother-daughter collaboration.
Tell me about how you worked out the book’s structure? I’m interested in the breakdown of “Now is New” facing off against “Same as it Ever Was.” Seems like a nicely nuanced way to get at the whole story.
Robin: The "Now is New" and "Same As It Ever Was" face-off was something that happened very late in the game. We'd written what we thought was a basically completed manuscript by about mid-January, and my friend Dan Menaker, a legendary book editor, agreed to take a look at it. The Table of Contents and stuff of each chapter were basically the same then as they are now, but the organization within each chapter was completely different. Each chapter was a bit of a hodge-podge, moving from one section to another within that chapter's particular domain (education, career, marriage) in whatever way we could best write our transitions.
Dan said the book would be stronger if we had what he called a "thick clothesline of an argument" on which to hang our facts. The argument, as he saw it, was basically a question: Is being young different for Millennials than it was for their parents? We hadn't even known for sure that that WAS our argument—I mean, we knew we were curious about how much about being twentysomething is new and how much is eternal, but we hadn't realized that was the main thread of the book. Dan helped us see that it was. It required tons of revising, rearranging, and rethinking, and we had only 6 weeks to finish it… so it was pretty intense there for a while.
Samantha: I deferred to Mom on a lot of the structuring. She’s the pro when it comes to book writing, or longform in general; I’d never written anything longer than a couple thousand words.
I do remember that right after Mom did a rough reorganization of everything, following Dan’s suggestion, I read it for the first time and was having a really tough time keeping track of how much evidence was piling up on either side. So I suggested that we do more bullet-point overviews and recaps as we went. I think that might have been my web-centered experience coming out. Online, bullets and bold-face and lists and recaps are necessary to keep readers’ attention.
That word “seem” in your title turns out to be telling, yes? I gather that most twentysomethings only appear to be stuck .
Robin: While we were writing the book, so many Baby Boomers complained to me about how their kids were stuck and unsure about their futures. But our research was showing us that this isn't the general rule, and that Millennials aren't that different from how these very same Baby Boomers had been when they were young. So it was important to Sam and me to have that word "seem" in there in the subtitle—as well as the question mark.
Samantha: We both feel like there are so many articles and reports out there condemning young people for being lazy and entitled, and so much of what we were seeing in our research told a different story: of young people struggling to overcome real disadvantages. We didn’t want to pile on to that idea of young people doing something wrong, or the idea that young people today are all that more “stuck” than young people from previous generations were.
What about this project was harder than you expected it to be?
Robin: This is my ninth book, so I already knew that writing any book is hard. All that uncertainty about whether you're choosing the right structure or the perfect word! One special difficulty was trying to avoid slipping into easy generalizations and clichés, something that's really tempting to do when you're looking for something insightful to say about a whole generation.
Samantha: I think at some point we both realized that there was a way to write this book that would have a shot at being a big, buzzy, successful book, but that it would mean making strong arguments that we didn’t think the research necessarily backed up. So instead we made the argument we felt comfortable with… a more muddy, less sexy one. That was a hard moment for me—to know that in order to write a book we both felt good about, we’d have to watch the sexier version of it sort of slip away.
Also, some of the personal stuff was tough for me to write… At times I felt uncomfortable putting myself or my friends into the story so much. I knew that was what my role in the collaboration was, so I knew I had to push that, but it was definitely outside of my comfort zone.
What about this project was easier than you expected it to be?
Robin: That's simple: collaborating with Sam. I worried, a little, that I might have to revert to a snarling-mommy role to get her to deliver her sections on time—not that she ever needed that kind of nagging before, even as a teenager. But it turned out, to my delight, that there was no nagging involved, and working with my daughter was almost always just a lot of fun.Samantha: Same answer for me. The collaboration was easier than I expected. I kept joking about how I was waiting for our big blow-up, for this to destroy our relationship. But that never came.