Interview: Pamela Paul.
I’ve known Pamela Paul for many years. When I switched from law to writing, one happiness stumbling block was that I didn’t know many other writers. Pamela was among the first writers that I got to know, and through her, I met a lot of other writers who have become my friends. So she has been a huge contributor to my personal happiness.
In her professional life, Pamela is an acclaimed journalist, editor, and author, and she’s also a passionate reader — credentials that make her perfect for her current position as the editor of The New York Times Book Review and head of all things book-related at The New York Times.
She’s also a member of one of my (three) beloved children’s literature reading groups. In fact, she wrote about the Kidlit group in her New York Times piece, “The Kids’ Books Are All Right.”
I’m so excited — Pamela has written a memoir that combines her love of writing and reading (and also travel), and it just hit the shelves last week. The day it went on sale, I ran out to get my copy for my weekend reading: My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. I loved it.
Since high school, Pamela has kept a single journal with her at all times, a book called Bob. It’s her “Book of Books” (“Bob,” get it?), and in it, she records every book that she reads.
My Life with Bob is a reflection on her relationship with the books she reads — how those books have been entwined in her experiences, her relationships, her extensive travels, her work, and her understanding of the world.
When I read it, I was thrilled to see a mention of Kidlit! And myself mentioned by name! Yes, I am a character in someone else’s memoir.
I love memoirs where people explore their passions, and I also love reading books that gives me a reading list for more books to read.
I was also fascinated by the way Pamela reflected on her life by looking at her “Bob.” It’s such an interesting angle. Like writing a one-sentence journal, or taking one photo every day, she found a quick, manageable way to record her experience in a way that allowed her to look back, reflect, and get a better glimpse of her life. So many thought-provoking, hilarious stories.
I couldn’t wait to hear what Pamela had to say about happiness and habits.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Pamela: When I am away from my children, I keep my phone by my side. When I am with my children, I (try very hard to) keep my phone away from my side. Obviously, work (and life) can interfere with that, but I really want to be present when I’m with them and available when I’m not. As a parent working full-time outside the home, this makes me happier.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I know that you can change your habits, for better and for worse. When I was younger, I thought you created habits for life. Now I realize that life can interfere with even the most ingrained habits. For example, I used to have a habit of exercising three times a week, but I’ve lost that in the last 2 years. Obviously, that falls into the “for worse” category. For better, I have found that when circumstance calls for it, I can start much better habits. When I was pregnant with each of my kids, I was able to learn to sleep on my side and my back, rather than my stomach, which I know is better for my back and overall posture.
Like a lot of people, I’m hard enough on myself as it is. Knowing that there can be a certain amount of flexibility in my habits makes me feel more aspirational and optimistic about the possibility of forming better ones, and more forgiving about falling into poor ones.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
My most important habit is sleep. If I don’t get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep, I am generally unhappy. If I have less than 6 hours, I almost entirely useless. If I get between 6 hours and 7 hours, I complain about it all day and blame all that goes wrong in the world on my lack of sleep, and that includes everything my kids do that irritates me that day, every unpleasant news development and every personal failing. Also, I send emails I regret and blurt out things I ought never have said. Sleep makes everything better.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Books keep me up later than they should that isn’t good for my most important habit, sleep. Also, really good TV shows, when I have the chance to watch them, are terrible for sleeping. The most recent one was “Stranger Things,” which I was possessed by. Now it’s “The Night Manager.” A few years ago, it was “Breaking Bad.” That show nearly destroyed me, and a few weeks after I’d finally finished binge watching it again, I started watching the first episode from the beginning and knew immediately that if I finished watching that episode, I would fall right back down the rabbit hole and not emerge again until I’d gone through every season. I had to turn it off at that very moment. It’s taken effort not to go back there.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Like most kids, I procrastinated doing everything: raking the leaves, constructing dioramas, bringing in bagels from the outside freezer. Then one day, I had a kind of epiphany though I can’t say it began with a lightning bolt. Instead, I recall it happening as I was sitting in my childhood bedroom, pushing a pencil through the grayish pink carpet while contemplating what I didn’t want to have to do that week. Here was my realization:
Say I had a homework assignment. I realized that I could either put the assignment off for a week and thereby add to the list of things I had to do, which is to say, add a week’s worth of low-level stress and then a day of high-stress when I struggled to get it done at the last minute. Or, I could simply do the homework as soon as it was assigned, and then spend a week feeling accomplished and relaxed and able to read or play games on my brother’s Apple II+ or do whatever else I wanted to do with that time. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, and it has ever since. I know it sounds show-offy to brag about it, but fundamentally, not procrastinating stems from a profound laziness. If I do something immediately, I get it out of the way and I can go back to lying around reading or watching a movie instead.
Do you embrace habits or resist them?