The Haunting Possibility of Alternative Lives

The author Elizabeth Kolbert on why she went into journalism and the myriad futures she imagined for herself

Barry Goldstein

The writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s grandfather, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was a huge fan of Westerns written by Karl May. They captivated Kolbert’s grandfather so much that when he immigrated to the United States, he took his kids out West for vacations. Later, Kolbert’s mother did the same.

As a child living in Westchester, New York, Kolbert dreamed of moving out West and having adventures of her own. She ended up mostly staying put in and around New England, but her job as a journalist helped fulfill her love of adventure, allowing her to spend much of her time following field scientists around remote locations.

I recently spoke with Kolbert about her dreams of going out West and her tendency to imagine alternative lives for herself. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Lola Fadulu: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Elizabeth Kolbert: I didn’t have a clear plan. I’m going to be quite frank: I wanted to move out West. That’s what I wanted to do when I was a kid. I was going to go out West and do something, but I never got west of Albany.

Fadulu: Why did you want to go out West?

Kolbert: My parents took us out West in the summer a bunch of times, and I thought it was great. We used to go to Rocky Mountain National Park.

My grandfather was a refugee from Nazi Germany, but he had, as a kid, read these Westerns by a guy named Karl May. They’re very, very famous in Germany, and they are adventure stories set in the American West. When he immigrated to the U.S., he took his kids—my mother and her sister—out West to sort of live out these adventures he’d read as a kid. And then it obviously made a big impression on my mom, and then she took us. And so that was the background to these trips. And as I say, they did make a big impression on me and I thought I, too, should go have adventures out West.

Fadulu: What did your parents do?

Kolbert: My dad was a doctor, an eye doctor. And my mom, throughout much of my childhood, was a stay-at-home mom, very active in local politics, on the school board, things like that.

Fadulu: Did they have a career path in mind for you?

Kolbert: They were not at all prescriptive in that way. I think my dad would’ve been happy if I had been interested in medicine. One summer when I was in high school he did arrange for me to have an internship, I guess you’d call it, at the hospital where he worked, and I proceeded to contaminate a lot of the equipment. I think it became clear pretty early on that [medicine] was not going to pan out.

Fadulu: How would you describe your younger self?

Kolbert: I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and I was probably very much a product of the time, of rebelling against, to a certain extent, what seemed to be the conventionality and 9-to-5-ism of suburban life.

Fadulu: There was something about suburban life that just didn’t feel like it was for you.

Kolbert: Well, it wasn’t just suburbia. It was really more the sense that you were just going to ... just tick off certain things. Do X, do Y, and then find yourself following a path that everyone had already followed before and that had been laid out for you before. That was very much part of the zeitgeist, and I definitely absorbed that. I didn’t want to just go off and work for some corporation, work for some institution and be subsumed in that.

Fadulu: Do you feel you’ve followed a path?

Kolbert: Well, as it turned out I did sort of follow a path, but it was not a path I knew about as a kid.

This is what happened: I studied German literature in college, and I thought I might go on and study German literature. I got a fellowship to go to Germany, and I very quickly decided that [becoming an academic] was not what I was going to do. I was kind of bumming around Europe, and I tried my hand at writing things.

I’d worked on the high-school paper; I’d worked on the college paper. I’ve always been attracted to journalism. And I wrote a bunch of stuff that actually made it into the travel section of The New York Times. And then I came back and got a really entry-level job.

This was a different era when, at the Times, there was a very clear path. You got a clerical job. You were not even a secretary; you were called a clerk or a copy person. Copy person was a term left over from the days when Times reporters would type stories on sheets of carbon paper. And then you would rip out—it was called a “take.” You’d rip out one take, which is basically one page, one sheet of carbon paper, and you’d yell, “Copy.” And the copy person would come take it from you, and then distribute these copies to the editors to lay out or whatever.

And by the time I arrived at the Times that system had long been gone, but you were still called a copy person. I arrived at a big transitional moment for journalism—not as transitional as the moment now, but that moment where everything was being computerized and all that.

And there was a path that you could take. You could be one of these clerks and copy people, and if you wrote furiously—and, basically, it meant spending 24 hours a day at the Times—you could get pieces in.

This was the mid-’80s. The front section on Sunday was divided into two sections, and in the second section was this place that they had ads. They basically just needed copy to go around the ad.

And so you would write these un-bylined stories, and if the editors liked them, essentially, they would actually hire you as a reporter. So that is how I became a journalist.

Fadulu: What do you think of career planning?

Kolbert: I went through much of my youth thinking a lot of things were equally interesting to me, and I was equally untalented in a lot of them. And so part of it was this process of trial and error, really, of trying to find something that I was interested in and also had enough ability to pursue. I play the clarinet, and it was very clear early on that I had no talent, but in some life I would’ve been a concert clarinetist. I still, even now, am afflicted by imagining alternative lives.

Obviously, there are 7.6 billion people on the planet, and they’re all leading different lives. And I’ve always found that a very fascinating and daunting fact. Why are you you? Why were you you? You happened to be born a certain person, but that seems really accidental. Could you become someone else? Could you have led a different life? Could you still lead a different life?

Fadulu: Are there any experiences that you particularly wish you’d had, or are just really curious about?

Kolbert: I guess it does get back to “Should I have gone out West and become a cowgirl?” or whatever. Some of the most intense experiences I’ve had have been out in really remote places, and I guess that’s a way of living that I sometimes wonder whether I should’ve pursued.

Fadulu: What sort of job do you think you would’ve had if you’d worked in a remote place?

Kolbert: I’ve been out with a lot of field scientists now. I’m not a field scientist; that’s not my temperament, and I don’t have quite enough patience for that kind of work. But I’ve always been filled with admiration for those people, and those are some of the greatest experiences I’ve had, being out in the field with these people in places where no one else was. We were the only people out there.

Fadulu: It seems like in journalism, because you’re out in the field and talking to so many different types of people, you’re kind of living different lives. Do you feel that way?

Kolbert: Yes, absolutely. And I think it’s also for people like me, who are interested in a lot of things but not absolutely committed to any particular vision of life. As you say, it does allow you to, if not exactly lead alternate lives, to have a glimpse into them and to always be doing something new.

I’m really, really grateful that I have been able to, if not actually lead multiple lives, chronicle multiple lives.