In her 77 years, Gail Sheehy has profiled world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and Hillary Clinton, daring to create a name for herself in the male-dominated world of New Journalism. Her immersive style of reporting serves her well as she turns a critical eye to her own life with the recent release “Daring: My Passages.”
Sheehy’s 1976 bestseller, “Passages,” offered insights into the typical crises of adult lives and was named one of the 10 most influential books of our times by the Library of Congress. Sheehy spoke by phone from her home on New York’s Upper West Side in advance of her appearance as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival, where she will be in conversation with David Maraniss on Friday.
Q: Why did you title your book “Daring”?
A: When I finished the memoir — it took three years to excavate my life — I realized that the theme of my life was “daring.” I’m a normally fearful person, but I found rather early, when I used to participate in swimming races as a little girl, starting at 5 years old with boys who were twice as big as I, the only way to have a chance to win is to be daring, to leap out in front. Sometimes I would take a racing dive and do three of them in a row until I was disqualified because I was so eager to jump.
Daring has been what really characterized my career as a journalist and as a writer. I’m always looking for issues that people hadn’t thought of, or taboos to break. The first issue was mid-life crises and what I called passages, the times of transitions in people’s lives that are predictable and normal and healthy. That made a big splash for boomers in the mid-’70s who began to think, particularly women, “I don’t have to conform to the conventional role of wife and mother, there’s an identity for me out there, too.”
Q: In other interviews, you talk a lot about “having it all.” You have a pretty strong opinion about whether women today can truly have it all. Is it possible?
A: I think it’s just a false premise, an illusion. If that becomes your goal, you’re going to be frustrated most of your life. You may have it all, at a certain point, and not all at once, and maybe not until your 40s. Hillary Clinton didn’t feel independent until she was 53, as she told me, when she first declared her own race for Senate. And you’re not going to keep it all, because eventually, somebody in your mix will get sick, and you may turn into a caregiver for a husband as I did, your children leave and go off to college and maybe not all of them are a total success. You may lose a job or even a career. You have to be prepared to say, “Do I have enough?” That’s the goal to shoot for. Enough self-respect, enough mutual love in your life, enough passion to keep yourself involved even when you’re older and gray.
Q: Did you approach writing your memoir as you would have any other in-depth personality profile?
A: Yes. I interviewed people about me at different stages of my life and certainly interviewed many of my colleagues at New York magazine where we got our start. I interviewed people about Clay Felker, the creator of New York magazine, my mentor and later my husband and the object of my own caregiving journey. He was a fabulous character, larger than life. Like many larger-than-life characters, he had many sides. I wanted to be a good reporter about him, not just a loving wife.
Q: How does it feel to go back and look at your life this way?
A: Ultimately, it’s very quieting. It was extremely painful in certain chapters to discover things that I had, as we all do, mentally swept under the rug. For instance, my father was very interested in my writing when I was a little girl and used to like to do stories with me. So I wrapped up my childhood chapter with a happy smile. My sister said, “Wait a second. Our father never read a single one of the hundreds of magazine stories you sent to him. Of all of the books you wrote, he never read a word because you were more successful than he was.” So I totally reexamined my relationship with my father.
Q: Do you have any advice for young women who are striving to find balance?
A: Yes. Postpone as long as you can getting married and having children. It takes a long time to become educated well enough to have multiple areas of expertise that you can turn to when one career path may shut down. Also, the 20s are the time when you have the opportunity to fail. You really need to fail early and preferably often. Then you find out that you don’t die from it, you learn from it. Then you can fail better the next time and ultimately succeed. That’s the experimental time I call the “Try-out 20s.”
Q: Can you talk about the Daring Project?
A: The Daring Project is my effort to excite young women to be more daring. Funnily enough, millenials, who have the best chance to be daring in their 20s, tend to be rather gun-shy because the economy is still fragile for them. They came of age when our economy almost went off the cliff, so they’re not all that confident that things will stay better once they get better. A lot of them are looking for a safe, secure job to get them out of Mom’s basement. Actually, that’s the wrong way to go. That’s a short-term fix. The right way to go is to explore, to have multiple jobs during your 20s. See what you really like, what you’re good at, build a nice network of contacts in multiple areas so that you have lots of different places to go in the future if the rug is pulled out from the place you’re in.