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The Writer's Life: Interview with New York Times Columnist Michelle Slatalla

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In my fantasy future, I live in California with my writer husband and our children, composing journalistic gems. I am the master of my schedule; I'm paid to cover stories I'm interested in; from time to time, my husband and I co-write a book.

So when the Thursday New York Times arrives on my doorstep, I grab the "Styles" section and flip to page two. Ecstasy. Michelle Slatalla's weekly column, "Wife/Mother/Worker/Spy," is a real-time depiction of my ideal -- that is, her life.

Slatalla and her husband -- Josh Quittner of Time magazine -- live in northern California with their three daughters. They work side by side in the basement and have co-written several books. Every week, Slatalla comments on (her own) domestic life:

My husband and I spend a lot of time together, some might say too much time. We live in the same house, of course, and we commute to work together -- down the steps, to our basement office. As I sit here now, typing this, I could hit him with my shoe if I wanted. Without leaving my chair. ("Ouch," he just said.)

On the phone, Slatalla was the bubbly, open storyteller she presents in print. What I hungered to know: how did she get here, and what is it like?

Slatalla arrived on the Times' glorified pages through a typical aspiring-journalist career path. At Indiana University Bloomington, she majored in journalism. "I was very focused back then on the idea of becoming a newspaper reporter," she said. Her goal was not just to write, but to be paid for it, too.

After college, Slatalla went on to Newsday; got a masters in English literature from Columbia University; met Quittner and began writing books; and moved to freelance writing, where she often covered tech. In 1998, when the Times launched its "Circuits" section, they sought out Slatalla, who has written for the paper ever since.

"To me, the Times has always been, and today is even more so," she said, "the gold standard of what you want to achieve in journalism -- the product is unparalleled and unequaled." Over a decade after she started writing for the paper, she still gets a rush from seeing her byline.

Slatalla's writing is spunky ("Children should come with yellow warning stickers taped to their foreheads: Caution, ideas inside!") and, though I'm a single 23-year-old and she covers late-40s motherhood, I devour her pieces. In her column, Slatalla transforms her life into universally accessible experience. She finds adventure in the ordinary, humor in the potentially boring, and this is why I count the days until Thursday. On the subway, in supermarket aisles, or wrestling with my umbrella, I apply her mentality: Wouldn't that lady spouting alien conspiracy theories on the F train make a great story?

Once she's come up with a broadly appealing column idea, Slatalla runs it through a timeliness test: If the piece could have been written at any other moment in history, it's out. (The column is in a newspaper, after all.) Then, topic in hand, she hits the Internet. Google keyword search, Nexus search, Amazon -- she starts fresh with each topic and mines the Web for everything she can find. Like any committed reporter, she talks to far more people than she ends up featuring. It's about finding the perfect quotation, not an approximation.

Many of Slatalla's columns star Quittner and their three children, Zoe, Ella, and Clementine. This is where chronicling home life becomes tricky. "I always start with a general rule, which is that there are some lines that I won't cross -- I will try never to violate their privacy," she said. "I try to be really conscious of that power and responsibility you have as a writer."

And being married to another journalist: really that great? "It's amazingly lucky, actually," Slatalla said. "You kind of have this built-in first reader who's a professional and somebody to bounce story ideas off of." Co-writing a book is touchy business -- Slatalla conceded there aren't many other people she could team up with. Then again, there aren't many others she'd marry, either.