Playgirl is back. You hadn't thought of it in a long time, had you. What grabs immediate attention in the first issue is their smart use of pregnant portraits of Chloë Sevigny shot by Mario Sorrenti for the cover as well as story inside. (Side note: there is a book to be done of Mario's photographs of pregnant women—they're always bold, yet sensitive, and the women always glow beautifully.) Anyway, Chloë and Mario do the primary lifting of garnering shareable social media and making eyeballs stop when scanning magazine store shelves (I was going to say "newsstand," but of course there are none of those around anymore) but it's the EIC, Skye Parrott, that most perked my interest when I heard it was back. Skye is the perfect choice to place at the helm of this new, feminism-directed iteration of Playgirl: she's got years of on-point editorial judgement behind her, knows many influential as well as beginning writers and photographers who can help bring her vision to distinctive existence, and, this is more a note of cool but I believe would have influenced her viewpoints on things-feminist, was Nan Goldin's Paris studio manager.
Skye first appeared on my radar when she was the Creative Director of Dossier (its first issue from 2008 feels like a hundred years ago), and I never wanted to miss an issue. I'm excited she's back in magazine-land and hope the same fervor develops for Playgirl. -Wes Del Val
WDV: What are the most meaningful books you’ve read which were also the fastest you got through?
SP: I think this has to go to The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. I don’t know when I’ve read a book so quickly that blew my mind open in a similar way. I read most of it on the subway, during a work trip I took back to New York two years ago. I had recently been attacked by a dog, and along with the physical trauma, I had some serious emotional trauma going on. The book is all about how trauma is experienced in the body and the brain. It’s an excellent read for anyone who has experienced trauma, or anyone else who wants to understand from a scientific perspective why it’s impossible to just “get over” trauma. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
What a balm, it sounds like you found it just when you needed it! Since it was so impactful, and since we’re all amidst such challenging, traumatic times, could you share some particularly truthful moments from it, which could benefit someone who hasn’t read it?
The greatest revelation in it for me (which may not be so surprising to others) was that trauma isn’t a feeling. It’s a physiological response. What that means is that trauma isn’t just something you can “get over.” It actually changes the way your brain works. I think understanding that is very helpful in terms of recognizing how real it is, and how necessary it is to get help to address it. That understanding also felt important in terms of having compassion for both myself and others.
Who are living writers you wish you could work with as editor?
There are so many writers whose work I adore, but the most satisfying work that I’ve gotten to do is working with writers who aren’t well-known, but are still earlier in their process. I also think that identifying talent is one of my particular strengths as an editor. In Playgirl we ran an essay from an incredible writer named Lexie Robinson, which was her first published piece. Another editor, Khira Jordan, and I worked very closely with her on it, and it was an absolute pleasure to be part of bringing it into the world. It’s an enormous privilege to get to work with people who have something important to say, and help them say it in a way that it lands.
I completely agree. What are your sources for finding unpublished or little-known writers and writing which excites you?
My friend Molly Guy is teaching a writing workshop series called Brooklyn Writers Collective. She was an incredible resource while we were working on Playgirl, and suggested I check out Lexie’s work as well as Ivy Elrod, who is a good friend of mine but whose piece also came out of one of Molly’s workshops. I also dug through The Creative Independent, which is how I connected with Nina Aron, the Editorial Director. I did a cold-reach out to her after reading an interview with her there that led me to her work.
Whose writing makes you most satisfied to be able to read it right now while it’s brand new?
Sometimes I have the experience of reading a book and finding that I actually have to close it for a minute to catch my breath. I felt like that reading The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy for the first time, and last year when I read Ocean Vuong’s book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and reading Rebecca Solnit’s essay Men Explain Things to Me, and I’ve had it more than once reading essays Carvell Wallace has written. The experience of reading something that is so breathtaking it makes me completely stop is one of my very favorite ones as a reader.
Are you a better reader today than you were ten years ago?
I’m afraid not. I don’t feel like the past ten years have been kind to my reading abilities. I think it’s the confluence of becoming a parent during that time, along with the rise of the smartphone as a constant source of information. Between those two massive shifts, my attention span has definitely suffered.
Indeed, I also don’t know anyone whose attention span hasn’t been radically altered since the advent of everything-at-our-fingertips-all-the-time. Never have there been more things which I genuinely want to read (I have 800 ebooks just waiting on my reader, not to mention all the physical books on my shelves, many of which I’ve had for decades and still not read) and never has my mind wandered more frequently than when I am reading most anything. I can read a dozen books at once, but if only I could read a dozen books at once.
So let me ask, what kind of reader do you think and/or hope you’ll become in the next ten years?
The last couple years have really marked a shift in my relationship with reading because I’ve started writing again. The last time I moved I found these notebooks from when I was in middle school, where we were required to keep a writing journal and turn it in to our teachers. I would fill mine with stories, poems, journal entries, just this massive amount of writing, and in the back of one my fifth grade teacher, Miss Singleton, had written, “I can’t wait to read the books you write one day.” I really loved writing. But then when I was a teenager I picked up a camera, and for many years my creative outlets were purely visual—although I continued to be a voracious reader. It’s just the last couple of years that I’ve started writing again, which has been wonderful, and it’s definitely changed the way I read and even think. So in terms of the next ten years, I guess my hope would just be for that process to continue to unfold.
What books and writers are you on your own with liking, meaning none of your closest friends feel the same way?
This question made me wish that I had the kind of life where I regularly discussed books with my friends (and made me think that maybe I should work on that). So, not knowing what my friends don’t like, I can say that I have had some periods where I’ve gone off on reading tangents into various, random genres. I went pretty deep into noir for several years when I lived in Paris in my 20’s, writers like Alan Furst, Raymond Chandler, Phillip Kerr. That kind of reading is great escapism. Then in the other direction, I worked on a project about Detroit a few years ago and read a lot about the history of the city, including The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which are both fascinating and relevant not just to the history of Detroit but more broadly to understanding America. That led me down a whole path that I’m still on, reading books about the intersections of race and class in America. One that I found particularly excellent was Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild. And then a number of years ago I also went on a deep dive into English history, which Allison Weir has written about so incredibly. Even though her books are basically made up of information pulled from historical records, what makes them successful, I think, is that she somehow manages to make those records tell a story in a way that they don’t feel dry.
What did you read in 2020 which you are kicking yourself you didn’t read earlier in life?
I have not read a single book since March. It’s without question the longest I’ve gone in my entire life without finishing a book, and I blame the combination of anxiety and parenting small children while the world burns. I just can’t focus long enough. I’ve read a ton of New Yorkers (see below), and have consumed a ridiculous and probably poisonous amount of news coverage. But I haven’t lost hope. I have a small stack of books on my bedside table: new reads, and re-reads. Now that the election is over, I’m rooting for myself to finish one of them.
Don’t beat yourself up, reading a ton of New Yorkers always warrants self-satisfaction! I’m so far behind I just went on a ten issue run a few weeks ago...which brought me up to April 2018.
I imagine a lot of people have been re-reading pretty steadily, if they’re reading period, since March. What’s on your bedside table which you might start and even finish again and others which are new? I’ll be rooting for you…
The books sitting on my bedside table now are The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls; Beloved by Toni Morrison—both of which I’ve read before but it’s been so many years that it will likely feel like the first time—Berlin Noir by Phlip Kerr, which I’ve been reading again slowly; Girl, Other, Woman by Bernadette Evaristo, which my mother gave me because she loved it; Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams, which is what it sounds like, a style guide; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which I have read big chunks of but not in its entirety; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin which I have never read; and, as mentioned, about 20 copies of the New Yorker in various stages of being read, from almost-finished (I tend to lose steam after the fiction) to not-even-opened.
What/who do you read which always makes you feel smarter after?
The New Yorker. For the first several months of the shutdown we were in Mexico, where we were living for the past two years. Because the town we were living in had no mail service, I was still having my New Yorkers sent to Brooklyn, and I would pick them up when I was here for work. When we came back to New York in July, I had six months of New Yorkers waiting for me. It’s like a dream, an endless pile of New Yorkers. I have been slowly working my way through them and they are my primary reading material right now.
I’d be buried in my piles of them if I didn’t read them digitally, but I’m disgusted I’m so far behind. I guess trivialities like this are for those of us who don’t have kids. Besides obvious reduced free time, how has having children changed what reading means for you, for better or worse?
Having kids requires that you take the long view on a lot of things, and reading is one of them. I have three kids, so my time is limited, and that means that I don’t currently have the time or often the energy to read the way I did previously. But I know from talking to people older than me that while it’s quite consuming, this time in life, when kids are little, is also ultimately short. I know my life won’t always look like this, and the time available to me for reading won’t always be so tight.
Right now a lot of the reading I do is with my kids, which is wonderful, too, especially as they get older because it gives me a chance to re-read books that I loved when I was little. I’ve gone through all the Roald Dahl books with my two older children. My 9-year-old and I have been reading Judy Blume lately, who I absolutely adored when I was a kid. And my mom saved a big box of my books, so there are also these random books in there that I’m so glad she saved because I never would have found them again. There’s this book called Harry’s Mad by Dick King-Smith about a boy in London who inherits a talking parrot that was one of my favorites. My daughter and I read it recently and she loved it too, so that’s a wonderful experience.
That’s wonderful, I hope it leads to all three of them loving to read for the rest of their lives.
Whose taste in book recommendations never lets you down?
Again, this kind of conversation is something I’m going to work on! But right now, sadly the answer I’m going to give is a friend from high school who I follow on social media but rarely speak to: Emma Straub, who is a writer and also has the beautiful bookstore Books Are Magic. If she recommends a book on her social media, I almost always check it out.
How often do books enter and leave your house and what is the current ratio of read/unread books on your shelves?
While we were in Mexico, I was traveling a lot solo for work, and one of the things I was doing regularly on those trips was going to actual bookstores and browsing the shelves. It was wonderful and meant I had a regular stream of good, new books coming into my life. But I don’t have to go into bookstores to accumulate books. I will buy them at yard sales, pick them up off stoops, get them from the library. Books come into my house a lot faster than they go out. I usually purge them once a year or so, and I have a hard time letting go of ones that have carried meaning at some point in my life because they feel like they are a part of me. Certainly they are little clues to how I have become the person I am.
As far as the ratio or read to unread, I’d say 85/15. There are definitely some books on my shelves that I haven’t read but I do intend to read at some point. This is especially true for classics. I’ve often had it happen that I’ve struggled through a classic on a first, or even second read, but if I put it down for a few years, I can pick it back up at a later date and just breeze through it.
Two questions from that: What bookstore experiences did you like best on your solo trips and do you recall any fabulous stoop finds? I always thought those regular opportunities would be a primary reason to live in Brooklyn.
In New York I usually go to Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, and Books Are Magic in Carroll Gardens. In Paris I love Shakespeare and Co, of course. But being able to wander the aisles of any independent bookstore is always a pleasure for me. Last spring I took a work trip to San Cristobel de las Casas, which is this beautiful town in the mountains in Chiapas, Mexico, and I found the most wonderful bookstore there. The town is on the backpacker trail so they had this incredible selection of second-hand books, and I stayed until they closed (I actually bought another Jeanette Walls book there, Half-Broke Horses, which I read on the plane home). As far as stoops finds, I’ll pick up anything that I actually think I’ll read. But my best find wasn’t a book, it was a chair. I saw a Herman Miller office chair that was being thrown out on the Upper East Side and I stopped my car in the middle of the street to grab it while a line of cars honked behind me. I’m sitting in it now.
What a find, lucky you. Chairs and sitting and readers and reading aren’t discussed enough, so you might have sparked a future question for my files… Thanks Skye, for both that and everything else you just said!
Skye Parrott, photographed by Kat Slootsky