Each week Megan Nicol Reed asks a public figure to choose three of the seven deadly sins to confess to.
This week Mary Norris enters the box. The author of the bestselling Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, worked as a copy editor at The New Yorker for 35 years.
When asked to choose three sins, you came back with "indecision" for your third; eventually settling on sloth. Were you procrastinating?
Indecision is a form of putting off work. Once you decide - and this is not just writing but any domestic project, from having a window fixed to the dishwasher fixed to repairing the tiles behind the toilet that had a leak seven years ago - once you make up your mind how you're going to fix it and what you're going to do, you remove a barrier to getting it done. And I don't get as far as removing that barrier because the indecision just keeps me from … like if I haven't made a decision there's nothing I can do, right?
Much of your career must have been punctuated by deadlines though?
Actually I'm supposed to be writing a column for their [The New Yorker] website now. I say supposed to be because I haven't been filing those columns promptly at all. The print deadlines I take rather seriously and I know I should take these web deadlines seriously, too, because they are counting on having something appear regularly. But so far I keep stretching that definition. Here's what I think of as laziness: somebody tells me something is due on a Monday, I figure I have until midnight, Monday - and somehow that just means it's due sometime that week.
Sometimes I am crippled with envy of other writers. Do you think writers are particularly envious?
I think envy is a sin writers are prone to because writers are out there and their performance is being judged and because writers are readers, just naturally interested in what other writers are doing, you can't blind yourself to it. You know, no matter how successful you are, there's someone more successful than you. I really have no reason to be envious of any writer at all now. I've done more than I ever expected to get done as a writer. I published a single book and then I published a second book. But I can give you a very specific example of envy. I'm ashamed of it; the copy editor Benjamin Dreyer has put out this new book called Dreyer's English and it has had a fabulous success, he's sold something like 80,000 copies in a month. My book is more of a memoir and less of a style guide but I did still feel somehow usurped. And while I'm happy for him and it makes me, and this is true, really glad people are interested in such a book. This is a good sign for our civilisation and we need as many good signs for our civilisation as we can get - I'm envious of his sales.
In your writing you come across as quite the bon vivant, throwing a Halloween party with "copious amounts of alcohol and candy", enjoying "a negroni with lunch"…
I am surprised and a little embarrassed, that I have written so much about food. Many years ago there was an attempt by a friend to get me to write restaurant pieces for The New Yorker … But I was always ashamed to because I was overweight and I thought people would be, "Well, no wonder she's so fat if she's eating out at restaurants all the time."
Is your enjoyment of food and drink a battleground for you?
I have a very sweet tooth and once I let that get the better of me it takes a long time to tame it back down, to get back to eating oatmeal and stuff. My favourite food groups are carbohydrates and fat. And alcohol. Is that a food group? I would say I enjoy having a drink. It's an issue in so far as it is empty calories. There's no sight unhappier than that of me drinking a white wine spritzer. It's just too dull. It makes me sad. Take away this spritzer. Bring me a full-bodied white wine!
A reader once told me my profligate use of commas mars my writing. Do you over-indulge in any particular point of grammar?
Well, I like commas but, as a writer, I'm probably more disciplined than I am an eater. I don't like flabby prose. I like condensed and compact prose and I actually probably punctuate fairly abstemiously.
Mary Norris is a guest at the 2019 Auckland Writers Festival, May 13-19, writersfestival.co.nz