I started writing at age seven when I decided to write a book of children’s stories for my future children. I remember telling my grandmother that I was the perfect person to write these stories because, as a child, I knew what kinds of things children were interested in. Clearly this was an early sign that I was interested in not just writing, but in the marketplace.
I didn’t come from a family of dreamers or visionaries. I was raised in a working class neighborhood in San Francisco that felt like a small village. I went to the same elementary school as my mom and I had some of her same teachers. Many of the kids I knew had parents who knew my family. This neighborhood of laborers, cops and firemen read about the city’s luxuries in the newspaper. When we took the streetcar downtown, the mothers chose our outfits carefully, making sure that the girls wore gloves and carried little handbags. Although we didn’t feel comfortable in those clothes or in those stores, we never wanted anyone to think we didn’t belong there. In my little handbag I always carried a notebook and a pencil. I never knew when I’d see something I needed to write down.
That little notebook was what saved me, or at least secured me. Most of the members of my family were very unreliable. Alcohol made them that way. The difference between what they said and what they did was huge. The notebook was the place I recorded these disparities. Gradually I understood that this writing habit kept me sane. As it turned out, it was also what made me into a journalist.
I found when I started working as a reporter at The Daily Californian, the college newspaper at UC Berkeley, that having an eye for the difference between what people said and what they did was very useful, and my strong contempt for authority was a popular view in most of America. I liked that journalism paid you to ask the questions that no one wanted to answer. Most of all, I found, I liked telling a story.
Two classes short of graduating with a degree in history from Berkeley, I got hired by The New York Times and left California for New York. Since then I’ve held nearly every job a journalist can have. I’ve been a beat reporter, a columnist, state capital bureau chief and a foreign correspondent. I was associate bureau chief in People magazine’s massive Los Angeles bureau where I learned the ways of celebrities, another population that demonstrates a big gap between what they say and what they do.
At People I started writing books with famous people and regular people who had powerful stories to tell. I’ve written eleven books, three of which have been bestsellers. I love collaboration, something I did daily as a journalist and do joyfully when I work with others.
All the while I’ve written books, I’ve continued to write in my own voice for magazines and to write humor pieces. I’ve received many honors for my investigative work, been nominated for the ASME National Magazine Award in the public service category, and was a finalist for the PEN/USA Literary Non-Fiction Award. I’ve also received grants in support of my investigative reporting from The Nation Institute for Investigative Journalism and the George Polk Foundation. I still carry a notebook in my purse.