October 2011

The Nation Reviewed

I heart New Yorker

By Christine Kenneally
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Amelia Lester

Amelia Lester’s ‘fearlessness’ sounds Australian. Her ‘integrate’ sounds American, and her ‘loved’ – as in, “I loved growing up in Sydney” – is strung out halfway over the Pacific. When she talks, her hands follow a complicated syntax all their own: first finger tips are pressed together, then her wrists swivel in parallel, then she outlines a weighty sphere, and starts tossing it back and forth. I met Lester recently at Cookshop on 10th Avenue, one of her favourite Manhattan bars, and she struck me as a unique combination of big brain, light heart and good manners. We ate oysters (“I love the oysters here”), drank margaritas and I asked her how her job was going.

Two years ago this month, at the age of 26, Lester took on the role of managing editor at the New Yorker, where every word is famously weighed, tested and checked for veracity before being published. Lester oversees the production of the magazine, a job rather like running a control tower. She must be in constant communication with all staff, track what writers are working on, make sure the stories planned for any particular week make sense together and, if necessary, hit the brakes on a carefully curated issue and pull together another at the last minute. When she talks about her path to the job, the track record she outlines is that of someone who throws herself into disorienting situations and learns them from the inside out.

Lester was born in Paris to peripatetic Australian economists. They moved to Canberra, and later took the five-year-old Lester and her brother to India. She remembers “birthday parties with elephant rides, peacocks in the back garden, cows in the streets, and tremendous poverty”. Lester’s parents remember their hyper-organised child starting a campaign called ‘Save the Earth’. She gave everyone in the family assignments, and issued newsletters. Ultimately the family moved back to Sydney, where the then 11-year-old Lester abridged, cast and directed The Merchant of Venice for a primary school production. She attended North Sydney Girls High School (“loved”), and began a bachelor of arts and law at the University of Sydney. She did not love law and decided, out of the blue, to apply for Harvard. Despite her parents’ surprise, they supported her, racing to the post office on New Year’s Eve to get the application date-stamped.

She was accepted by Harvard, won a scholarship and, in 2001, her parents flew her to the US to settle her in. A few days after they left, Lester woke up in the tree-lined, redbrick serenity of Harvard Yard to the news that a plane had flown into one of the towers at the World Trade Center. It was September 11, and all the new students gathered to watch the disaster on TV. “I thought the States was being invaded,” said Lester. “I spent a semester wondering what the hell I was doing there.” But Lester stayed, deeply grateful for the opportunities that were given to her. She read the Gettysburg Address, memorised lines of Chaucer and attended a class in number theory. “I was terrified by math in high school,” she said. “But, to my astonishment, it turned out to be a creative endeavour.” In 2002 she returned to Sydney during the university break to intern for Australian Vogue. She also worked for Let’s Go, travel guides written by Harvard students, spending the summer of 2004 in Paris, updating 30 pages of copy per week and eating “loads of duck”.

After Harvard, Lester moved to New York and worked as a fact-checker at the New Yorker for two-and-a-half years. “I remember thinking shortly after I started in the job that the institutional respect accorded to fact-checkers at such an august institution was really surprising and wonderful.” The importance of having “truth on your side” hit home when she checked a story by the feared and famous investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Lester spoke independently to Hersh’s confidential sources and rigorously re-reported their statements. Then, after the story was published, she watched a White House spokeswoman try to deflect it on TV, going so far as to cast doubt on whether the very real people Lester had spoken to actually existed.

After a short stint editing at the Paris Review, Lester returned to the New Yorker in 2009 as managing editor. For this job she mastered an entirely new set of skills. “The learning curve was tough,” she said. Now, she’s constantly on email, reading Twitter, sometimes literally running through the office and contributing to the weekly ideas meeting. “No idea is automatically excluded,” she said. “Nothing is too highbrow, too lowbrow, too obscure, too commercial. If it’s an interesting story, it’s fair game, and that is a pretty inspiring brief.” When Osama bin Laden’s death was announced on Sunday, 1 May, Lester knew straightaway that the next week’s issue would change. Her boss, Editor-in-Chief David Remnick, arrived the next morning with a plan of action, and the whole staff kicked into gear to pull together a new issue of the magazine by Friday. “I’ve learned a lot about management from David,” said Lester. “He never asks anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do; and if he needs something fast, we’ll do it, because we know he’s working just as hard, if not harder.”

Lester keeps in touch with a bunch of friends from high school (who live all over the world), and she remains close to her parents, who after a few years in New York are back in Sydney. She says that she’s now learning to become more of a New Yorker. “I used to have more of that Commonwealth politeness,” she said. “But I’m learning that if something isn’t right, say, you’re out at restaurant, you speak up.” She laughed. “Of course, I say it, and then my face goes red, and then I worry afterwards that the waiter doesn’t like me.” She shouldn’t. When I arrived at Cookshop, I was told to wait. But Lester had arrived early and negotiated a table in the tightly booked bar on the condition that we’d be happy to move as soon as they needed it. We got the table. They loved her.

Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is the author of The Ghosts of the Orphanage and is now writing a book about the orphanage experience for Public Affairs and Hachette Australia. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate and New Scientist.

@chriskenneally

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