I leaned around the office door and checked at 1:30, but the info session was still going. I reviewed the questionnaire I was given when the students and their families showed up. This was to be my last interview of my senior interviewer career, and I was as calm as I could be—which is to say, fidgety with nervous energy. I loved that job: getting to know prospective Sarah Lawrence students and answering their questions about life and studying at the College. I loved dressing up for work, wearing my snazzy etched nametag, carrying a clipboard into the interviews so I could scrawl mysterious notes on lined paper and refer back to the questionnaire with pizzazz. It felt so important. It definitely sounded more prestigious than it was: senior, of course, meant senior in college. I was not, as it sounded, an Interviewer who was highly experienced or at least had stuck around for some time, thus warranting the modifier, “senior.” The very nice office with the tidy desk and lovely, leaded windows was definitely not mine.
I was a real thirteen-going-on-thirty; from my very first job working in a Harry Potter-themed shop in Los Angeles called Whimsic Alley, I’ve always been preoccupied with work, whatever I determine my work to be. Schoolwork, writing, selling wands and Hogwarts sweaters—anything can become my work. As my sister-in-law once said, “It’s not even fun to make fun of you, you’re just so earnest.”
But, it swiftly became clear that taking everything so seriously made me, in addition to a solid student and excellent employee, a stressful person. I was an efficient communicator once relationships were built, but in the precious first minutes of those interviews, I became acutely aware of how awkward I felt—and probably was. Communicating information clearly and efficiently is an important skill in the workplace, but so is putting people at ease, an area in which I have never been gifted. Perhaps it was because I am never at ease, but making these students comfortable was a real challenge. Some of them had charisma, and were probably running the show, but others made me seem like a social savant. One girl read aloud a list of her hobbies from notes that she brought into the interview, because she was so nervous. My heart went out to her. I would never—but I would definitely think about it in a moment of panic.
Early into my interviewing career, I picked the brains of the few other seniors who had gotten a head start, living on campus over the summer and getting three full months of practice giving interviews before I toddled back to school at the end of August. They were so comfortable, so smooth. They had the most genuine smiles, well-timed chuckles, thoughtful and well-organized questions! It was simply riveting! I had so much to learn. Kindly, they shared with me some tips and ideas about how to guide my interviewees, and I tried my best absorb all the details.
Which brings us to the brunch question. You’ve definitely encountered it, maybe framed around a different meal. Dinner parties were the thing of past eras, and today’s youth and hip of all ages are preoccupied with brunch. Add dinner parties to the list of things we Millenials are probably killing; I’m sure they’ll return to being in vogue in x number of years, just like napkins, diamonds, and Applebee’s. “Retro,” they’ll say. “Nostalgia,” they’ll smile. “Ironic,” they’ll approve with a raised eyebrow and inclination of the jaw, because everyone knows it’s not cool to actually care about anything.
Here’s how I word it: If you could choose any three people, living or dead, fictional or real, to invite to brunch, who would you choose and why? It’s a perfect interview question, or a silly ice breaker to get to know someone. I highly recommend it and there are several ways to modify it.
There are really two tactics you can take, and so the first thing you learn about a person comes through their choice of tactic. Do they just pick three people they think are cool, with whom they’d like to break bread? Or do they consider the potential interactions of their fellow diners with each other, beyond just picking people they’d like to meet. It’s very revealing. I always like it when people go above and beyond, think about how the guests would get along (or despise each other). For example, I think it would be be fascinating to dine with millionaire matchmaker Patti Stanger, and Jane Austen. Can you imagine? Patti in short leather shorts and cerulean stilettos, saying something about non-negotiables! Patti takes a call from a client during the meal and yells at him about being a “lazy lion,” and outrageously mixes metaphors, telling him to go deeper, “and get under the hood of the car.” Jane, bewildered but bemused, understanding perfectly why some of Patti’s clients’ parents help Patti vet potential dates for their children, both of them finding shared ground in Patti’s rule that you don’t move in with someone before you get a ring. Throw in someone like Nora Ephron to make a third, and BOOM. Brunch in New York, at somewhere like Russ & Daughters, perfect conversation, absolute hilarity, best meal you’ve ever had.
The other tactic, of course, is to choose three people you find interesting—remember, you don’t have to like them, you just have to find them interesting—without thinking about how they would interact. Emily Bronte, Nikola Tesla, Marilyn Monroe. Huh. See what I mean? I’d love to be openly hostile to James Franco for an hour and abruptly ignore him for large swaths of time in order to fangirl Roxane Gay and literally anyone else, but I would feel terrible for exposing Roxane and literally anyone else to James Franco for an hour. And anyway, that’s not the point of the question.
It’s hard to get to know people when you’re anxious. It’s also hard to let yourself be known, especially when you fall into the awful, spiraling rut of hating yourself for not talking, talking, hating what you said, and going back to hating yourself for not talking. In high school, I had an impossibly cool friend, M., one of those people who you can’t figure why they like you because they walk through the world so differently from you. In an Irish pub on Wilshire Blvd., I used the tiles on the tabletop to allocate appropriate percentages of anxiety I felt to various topics that consumed my thinking. She was bemused. “Yeah, I don’t really worry about anything like that,” she said, cheerfully eating French fries. Later, she shared with me the following piece of advice: Plan your day (and social engagements) around meals. They give you structure; you can’t get trapped with anyone for too long—but you can, of course, continue to hang out with someone after if you want to. She was the sort of person who could navigate any crowd, someone who would probably give a different, fascinating answer to the brunch question on any given day of the week, because she could get along with anyone and could make interesting conversation with anyone. Exhibit A: blithering me, gesturing at tables.
I couldn’t afford my interviewees the luxury of a meal to bookend our time together, but the brunch question at least brought food and company into play. Sometimes, balking, the students would ask for an example, and I’d fumble through my picks of the day. I’ve since refined them to a tight trio of my personal and literary heroes, with alternates* on deck, should I be feeling dangerously spontaneous!
- Anne Carson: mysterious Canadian poet and translator.
FUN FACT: When I was working at Strand, my friend K. got to help her husband Robert find a book. Not sure how his marriage to her came up in conversation, but I made an alarmed sound something like “hruhgk,” (think a hiccup, but…more awkward) when he told me about it. In all actuality, I would probably run away if she showed up; the prospect of actually being face to fact with her would probably make me nauseous—if she disapproved of me, what would I be? In this inverting way, I am an Icarus to her sun. I would never try to get too close to the sun that she is; I do not need close proximity to be improved by her glow.
- Rebecca Solnit: my fellow Californian, a cultural historian and essayist. Unlike Anne Carson, I sadly cannot connect myself to her via six degrees of separation, but I think I would feel equally ill with excitement if she showed up one day and was like, “Hey Anna, let’s talk about any one of our mutual interests! Feminism? Photography? Social and political trouble and space? Virginia Woolf?” Speaking of…
- Virginia Woolf, the grand high bitch herself, who needs no introduction, especially if you’ve ever talked to me.
They would all make me nervous, but I’d choose them anyway. I flatter myself to think that Anne Carson and Rebecca Solnit would probably feign interest in me just to get through the conversation, until they realized how much they had to talk about, and promptly forgot I was there, but it’s recently occurred to me that I don’t think Virginia Woolf would like me. Not that I’ve always thought she would (unsurprisingly, I’ve always thought of myself as sort of below her level of interest), but most of my writing these days is of the very meandering, self-centered sort she despised in “The Decay of Essay Writing,” (1905). I mean, let’s be real, I don’t know if any of these goddesses would like me, but I love them. If anyone called me the intellectual love child of any possible permutation, or even compared me to any one of them, I would die of happiness. To be perfectly clear, I would take this potential brunch so seriously that my particles would probably vibrate into flame with anxiety and singe themselves out of existence. And if I managed to stay extant, I would probably say one stupid thing and then nothing else at all for fear that they would hate me forever. I would become invisible, a delighted, silent witness to this great meeting of minds. I think that’s just as telling as my choices, to get back to the original purpose of the question, and it tells us something I already know.
The brunch question is a valuable tool in its joint abilities to amuse and expose. It’s silly. Potentially lighthearted, while revealing. In learning to ask it, I became a better interviewer; I often didn’t even need it, just with the knowledge that I had it waiting to fall back upon. I’ll have to remember, if I ever meet Anne or Rebecca, and whenever I casually meet respected Woolf scholars, the lengths a little levity can take you. Those students with their Indiana Joneses, Ben Franklins, Salvador Dalis, Margaret Thatchers, George Harrisons, and Greek goddesses (someone once, dazzlingly, threw out Artemis as a second invitee), got it, either before I did or after.
*ALTERNATES: Sara Ahmed, Maggie Nelson, Jeanette Winterson, in no particular order.