Weekend Reading

Weird Reptile Editing, Tradwives, Glutted Snakes, and Slow Comedy

Sun yourself dry with works by Zach Baron, Gaby Del Valle, Maggie Freeman, and Joe Pera

Zach Baron in GQ: “For years, Martin Scorsese would ask himself: What will happen when I get old?”


Veteran celebrity profiler Zach Baron walked away from his interviews with director Martin Scorsese with more material than he knew what to do with. “Usually, I find it very obvious and intuitive and — almost while the interview’s happening — know,” he told The Fine Print. “Because he’s so digressive and so interesting on so many different topics, it definitely took a while sitting with the transcript to be like, this goes here and this goes here.” A formulaic ordering was never in the cards. “The pieces I write for GQ aspire to a kind of intimacy,” he said. “There’s a more formal way of telling stories that is like: We’re gonna give you the scene, and then we’re gonna go back and tell you about his childhood in a linear way, and then we’re going to take you right back up to the present. I think GQ is often more interested in formal invention. Can we play with structure? Can we play with style? Can we give you a sentence fragment? I’ve also been at GQ for a long time, and hopefully have the trust of Will Welch, who runs the magazine, and of Geoff Gagnon, who edits the stories, and they’re willing to play and experiment alongside me.”

That trust, however, entails an imperative to make something new. “I’ve been trying to find a logic for the piece that was not chronological, or even as clean as this is the section in which he talks about his old films and this is the section where he talks about Killers of the Flower Moon,” he said. “The organization of this piece is singular and not obvious — maybe in some ways not even totally obvious to me all the time — about why we were with his childhood priesthood, but now we’re talking about Paris and Rod Serling’s Patterns, but still giving you what I always aspire to most of all on these things, which is a sense of momentum and speed that pulls you through.”

In parts, Baron hit the necessary velocity by capturing the pace of Scorsese’s conversation. “There’s definitely a part of the piece where I try to stylistically mimic the way it is to listen to him talk, the long, stream of consciousness, topic-switching, digressive way that he speaks,” he said. “I try to give you that sense of freight train momentum. And that has utility even outside that section, because then lower down, you’re reading quotes and you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know how this guy’s brain works and how it sounds like when he talks.’”

Baron tried to bring the reader into the room with Scorsese, but in introducing the most spiritually invigorating section of the piece, he writes that there are limits. “In my experience, Scorsese does try to be honest. If you ask him about impending mortality, for instance, which I did, hesitantly, he will tell you the truth,” he writes. “The truth, he said, is that ‘I think about that all the time.’ I wish everyone could have been with us for what he said next. Because it was beautiful, and it’s hard to render beauty, but Scorsese spoke for about 40 minutes, after I asked this impertinent question about death, and I can only approximate it now, but here goes.”

“I always lean toward the really human stuff,” Baron told us. “What I had seen less of was what he’s like as a human. And at 80, a lot of the questions about what it’s like to live in the human body of Martin Scorsese revolve around mortality.”

Though the piece didn’t need a heavy edit, a section flip from Daniel Riley, GQ’s global director of content development, struck Baron as particularly inspired. “He flipped some of the older stuff with some of the newer Killers of the Flower Moon stuff and, actually, kind of counterintuitively, gave you some of the older stuff first and that really worked,” he said. “It gave the piece somewhere to go. Especially a heavy conversation like this one, where it’s a lot of two guys sitting in a room talking about life and death.” He still doesn’t quite know why Riley gave the note. “Honestly, it was weird, reptile editing,” he said. “I was like, I don’t know how you came up with this and I don’t even quite know why I’m changing it, but I agree that it’s better.”

Sometimes, when Baron describes how Scorsese structures his films, it can feel like he’s surfacing the structure of his own story. The director, he writes, “was talking about how movies can be built or deconstructed because of Killers, which has the elliptical, episodic structure of many of his other films. Less narrative, more atmosphere, more information by way of anecdote, by way of scene, by way of character.” “When I was writing those sentences, I was not conscious of describing anything that I tried to do. Although, in retrospect, I think, absolutely, 100,000 percent,” he reflected. “He talks about it in the piece, of himself not being that into beginnings, middles, and endings, and trying to find this different logic for storytelling, whether it’s Goodfellas or this movie, where you almost drift through it. I didn’t think of that in terms of trying to mimic that, but I do think, hopefully, this piece is not organized like another piece.”

Bonus: In another example of a writer expertly putting readers in the room with his subject, Joe Hagan profiles Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for Vanity Fair.

Gaby Del Valle in The Baffler: “To the conspiracy-minded, tradlife is the ultimate form of resistance to elite social control, the inverse of the pod-living, bug-eating world just around the corner.”


On a dark winter day, Gaby Del Valle got coffee with Jess Bergman, her editor at The Baffler. “We were talking about a different piece that I was writing, and I was like, ‘By the way, are you interested in something on tradwives?’” she told The Fine Print. “What about them?” Bergman replied. So Del Valle started rambling about her brewing obsession. She had been immediately intrigued after her friend Sophie Kleeman, a senior investigations editor at Insider, dropped the @hogfathering Instagram account into a group chat. The account belonged to a Utah man named Daniel Neeleman. Soon, she was pouring over his wife Hannah’s Instagram account, too, trying to puzzle out how the couple had become such huge influencers and how they afforded their rustic yet luxurious life on a 328-acre ranch they’ve dubbed Ballerina Farm. Pretty quickly, Del Valle discovered that Daniel’s father, David Neeleman, who was born in Brazil but raised in the Mormon church in Utah, is an airline mogul who, after selling a regional airline he’d started to Southwest, went on to launch several other airlines including JetBlue. Though the Neelemans haven’t adopted the tradlife moniker, their story — both the side they told their Instagram followers and the side they mainly kept to themselves — seemed to be a fascinating emblem of a rising movement. “Because they’re so, for the most part, apolitical, they’re a more palatable example,” Del Valle said. “I know people who are liberals or leftists who nonetheless want her life. Honestly, I would also love to live on a ranch in Utah and make bread.”

To Del Valle, the Neelemans’ lifestyle influencing brought a dark history to mind. “I was reading a lot for an unrelated project about early 20th century pronatalism and these policies designed to get people to have a lot of kids and specifically for farm families to have a lot of kids. The Ballerina farm stuff that I saw reminded me so much of this crazy, government-engineered rural eugenics program, which is obviously a really extreme reaction to an Instagram account,” she said. “I don’t think these people are eugenicists, obviously. I think they’re just living their lives. But the imagery was very similar to what I had been reading about, which I thought was interesting because I don’t think it’s something that they’re doing consciously. But what they are doing consciously is using this classic rural American aesthetic. The reason why that imagery is so classic and why we think of it as being this American farm family ideal is because of this rural eugenics program in the 1910s.”

“Then I started talking to people about Ballerina Farm and every single woman I know has seen her all over Instagram and all over TikTok. A bunch of people I knew followed her. I don’t know if it was a curiosity follow, a hate follow — I just saw that they all followed her and I was like, this is crazy. I was shocked that there hadn’t been a super deep dive on it,” Del Valle said. At the same time, Del Valle was starting to see a lot of agriculture-related conspiracy theories on her X feed. “Stuff about how ‘they don’t want you to eat meat’ and ‘they don’t want you to put butter in your coffee,’” Del Valle said. “Last summer, there was a drought that killed a bunch of cattle, and they were like, ‘This wasn’t a drought! This is the Biden administration trying to get you to eat bugs.’ Just conspiratorial thinking about food and what we put in pur bodies. And I kept relating it back in my brain to this woman who’s making these meals for her family from cows that they raised themselves.”

“I feel like every time I talk about this I also sound insane. I remember when I was pitching it to Jess, I was like, ‘I know I sound crazy, but just bear with me,’” Del Valle said. “I was like, ‘Okay, so there’s these people and they think the government wants us to eat bugs.’ She was like, ‘Yeah, sure, okay.’”

So Del Valle set off to write it. Perhaps the most traditional thing about the making of this story about people playacting a return to tradition is that she started writing it by hand, as she does many of her pieces. “I started doing it once when I couldn’t figure out the words I wanted to write in a draft. I was like, ‘Okay, maybe if I just take out a notebook and play around in it for a little bit, that might be helpful.’ Then I wrote several hundred words, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, this is so much better,’” she said. “Obviously, that does not lend itself to speed, which is why I don’t do that many pieces a year. You type so much faster than you write pen to paper, which is good for efficiency. But sometimes when I’m typing, it’s almost like a muscle memory thing, where I’ll type words without thinking carefully about the next word.” She would have written the whole story in a notebook but had to switch to a keyboard after about 2,000 words because she’d run out of time. “There was a section where I stopped,” she said, “because I was like, ‘Okay, this is due. I need to just type it up.’”

The story is a continuation of a method she’s been pursuing. “It was a different application of the skill set I’ve been working on for a while, which is trying really hard to understand people I disagree with in a way that is not judgmental. Last fall, I reported on MAGA Latinos for Deseret. I went to South Texas and I spoke to all of these fifth generation Mexican-American South Texans who were super evangelical, and they were all complaining to me about pronouns,” she said. “I really wanted to understand. I never want to be like, these people are bad and the way they think is bad, even if I disagree with it, because I don’t think that that makes for interesting writing or reporting. I have to try to understand where they’re coming from, so then I can be like, and this is also why I think this is bad.”

And this may not be Del Valle’s final contribution to the tradwife beat. “Now a thing that’s happening is that people are texting me about tradwives all the time,” she said. “Every single person I know will be like, ‘Look at this crazy thing. Where does this fall in the tradwife spectrum?’ Which I think is really fun.”

Bonus: Manvir Singh serves up the masculine-coded carnivore diet flip side of right-wing food politics in The New Yorker.

Nomads, Past and Present hosted by Maggie Freeman: “In an evocative new translation, Chris Atwood brings to life for contemporary readers the world of the Mongol steppe, the Mongol conquests, and life within the tent cities of the Mongol empire.”


Tune in for the steppe history, stay for the Mongol poetics. Christopher Atwood, a professor of Mongolian and Chinese frontier and ethnic history at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses his translation of The Secret History of the Mongols, a court history written by an unknown historian shortly after Chinggis Khan (also known as Genghis Khan) died in 1227. As a translator, Atwood is attuned to the Secret History’s factual significance and the nuances of Mongol idioms. He recalls a passage in the book describing Chinggis Khan’s trek through wooded mountains: “He talks about going into a place that was so narrow, in between trees that were grown so thickly a glutted snake could not get through them. That phrase actually appears later in a Persian history: They’re talking about some forest in the Caucasus, and they say the Mongols came up to this forest, and it was so thickly grown a glutted snake could not get through it,” he says. “It’s exactly the same metaphor, and I’m sure that comes into the Persian history from a Mongolian source. This is what Mongols say when they have really thick forests.”

Atwood explains that he suspects the phrase is a little hyperbolic, especially for anyone whose life ranges beyond the steppe. “I’ve been in the forests of Mongolia and they’re not that thick. Actually, I think foresters oftentimes call them understocked. That is to say, it’s not like the Olympic National Forest in Washington State. It’s not like the Amazon,” he says. “But it seems that the Secret Historian was used to the broad steppe and going out and being able to see for miles, so even a little bit of forest really bothered them.”

Joe Pera: Slow & Steady: “I got something exciting for you. It’s not the winning lotto numbers, it’s better. When my Adult Swim show was canceled, I went back to my stand-up roots and hit the road. I did a tour that was supposed to be three weeks but then grew into a year.”

To bide the time while waiting for word on whether his Adult Swim show Joe Pera Talks with You would be renewed, the renowned slow comedy king planned a few live stand-up dates. When the network canceled the show, “We just decided to keep it going,” he told The Fine Print. “A year and a half later, it led to the special. The material felt ready to be taped.” Neither Pera nor Marty Schousboe, who directed his show and the special, had ever done a stand-up special. They had pitched the show to networks and streamers, but with no bites, “We decided to do it ourselves so that we could make sure we did it exactly the way we wanted to.” The hour-long special will be available on Pera’s YouTube channel this Friday, October 6. It’s funny and warm and has some of the most eerily surreal crowd work on record.

“The original dream was to film it in Chicago on a snowy winter night. I love going to shows in the winter and stomping through snow and getting in there. It increases the warmth of the show inside of the venue and gives it a feel,” Pera said. “But then I think going to Chicago to shoot would have been more expensive. And that led to us trying to narrow it to local places where most of our crew is.” They ended up picking the Williamsburg Opera House. “I think that that’s what gave us the most ideas. Marty and I brought in our approach of how to do this as simply as possible, no frills, while at the same time feeling like a special event,” he said. “The darkness, the large stage, yet keeping it real. It’s just pretty much me, chair, lamp, and then my musician collaborator’s table and gong.”

Pera isn’t planning any launch parties or other revelry to mark the special’s debut. “I have a pretty tame life on tour. I don’t deserve a celebration. I just want people to watch the special, and hopefully, I’ll be able to get back to making more stuff,” he said. On the tour, he visited Glacier National Park for the first time. “We did some shows in Montana this past summer. We built in a few days for hiking and hanging out. That kind of felt like the end of the tour celebration,” he said. “It was about an hour and a half hike up into this quiet lake that wasn’t accessible by roads. It was green and very cold water, but it felt incredible to swim in after the hike — Avalanche Lake. That was a celebration, getting to swim in a lake while on a comedy tour. That’s as good as it gets if you ask me.”