The Millions Interview: Natasha Vargas-Cooper

September 14, 2010 | 7 books mentioned 7 min read

covercoverI’ve never been a great fortune teller.  For instance, I had the Dodgers and the Tigers in the World Series this year, and I was sure — sure! — that Avatar would win Best Picture at last year’s Oscars.  But when it comes to spotting great book ideas, I’m Nostradamus.  Or, at least I was when it came to Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America.  Just a day or two into the life of her now-hugely popular Footnotes of Mad Men blog — a blog that unpacks the historical and cultural trappings of the popular AMC show Mad Men —  I predicted it would “have a book deal by the end of Season 3.” And it did.

To be fair, it wasn’t hard to call.  Vargas-Cooper was already a rising star in the online world.  Her smart and moving series on the Jesse James Hollywood murder trial was one of the highlights of the early days of The Awl, the kind of smart reportage/memoir hybrid that demanded attention and rightly got it.  Her signature prose style — exuberant, tough, and daring — started popping up all over the place, from Gawker to The Daily Beast.  By the time the news broke that she had a book deal, the only surprise I felt was that it hadn’t happened sooner.  The book that came from Footnotes of Mad Men — Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America —  a gorgeous paperback full of slick, glossy reproductions of photos and advertisements from the era, is out now.   It is, as its blog predecessor was, a worthy companion to what many would call the best show currently airing on television.

The Millions: Take me back to the beginning.  You’re watching the show, you’re already blogging and writing about all sorts of things for The Awl, for your own site.  What made you say “I have to write about this show.  This needs to be a blog.”?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: I think, too often I have the thought, “this needs to be a blog.”  I was at a very bleak phase of my mid-twenties. During the summer of last year, I had a number of losses dealt to me in rapid succession, and in order to stave off constant wallowing, I started to rewatch the show.  Its mood and details had me enveloped; I wanted them all in one place and I wanted to walk around in them, so naturally comes the thought: “this needs to be a blog.”

TM: And what made you realize it could be a book?

NVC: Mainly the call from HarperCollins that asked if I’d like to make this into a book. Originally, I thought I would just continue writing the blog as is and the book would be a collection of the writing but that notion got junked pretty quickly. The blog has a purposefully ephemeral quality to it. The book is all original writing conceived with the idea that these arguments need to be lasting (but not boring).

TM: The book is broken into sections by theme – the ad business, style, sex – and it strikes me as a particularly genius way of organizing it, since it allows you to address each issue within its context both on the show and in the time period.  But it’s not how the blog is structured.  How did you come upon that?  Was there ever another structure in mind?

NVC: My first structure laid out the book geographically.

  • Manhattan (Sterling Cooper, advertising, professional life, men);
  • Brooklyn (the life of working girls, Peggy’s problems, scenes from the steno pool);
  • Ossining (Betty’s world, the domestic sphere, anything having to do with the kids, the lives of suburbanites);
  • Out There (the world at large, Kennedy, Los Angeles, Hilton).

That’s actually how I wrote the book, by trying to culturally map these places. I turned in that version and we decided it was a little too esoteric and indirect.

TM: That’s kind of brilliant, though, as the locations are so much a part of the fabric not just of the show, but of the time, as well.  The opening section of the finished book gives an impressively broad overview of the advertising industry, circa 1960.  In other interviews, you’ve mentioned research at CalArts, but it’s clear you also did a lot of reading.  Who wrote the best of the ad memoirs?  Where should people go next if they want to know more about that business at that time?

coverNVC: George Lois, the art director of Doyle Dane Bernach who worked on the Volkswagen campaign and went on to create most of the modern logos that are burned into our brains, as well as Esquire’s most iconic covers, has the best autobiographies because he’s really dishy while never giving up his tough guy style. You get all the swagger and war stories, but also a sense of how exciting it was to be a part of the creative revolution in advertising. David Ogilvy’s books [Ogilvy on Advertising, Confessions of an Advertising Man] are also my favorites because he’s so austere and witty. Ruthless even.

TM: Another section of the book that I connected with is the chapter on Don Draper and his trip to California.  A special circle of hell is reserved for East Coast film/TV people who move to LA to work in the industry and then make movies/TV that show LA completely inaccurately (Paging Greenberg).  I thought Mad Men showed a pretty nuanced version of California — the hedonism of the wealthy in Palm Springs, the working class enclaves like Long Beach and San Pedro.  Do you see California returning to the show in future seasons?

NVC: I hope so! Every time Don heads to the bungalow in Long Beach I go over the moon. Southern California should play a role in future episodes because more than any other city/region in the country, Southern California embodied all of the ideals that came to define the late 1960’s and beyond: youthful, informal, image-driven, ahistorical; a golden land of consumers.

TM: Let’s talk about Don Draper.  I think he’s an interesting character, but he’s also impenetrable, and the show sometimes seems to want to do nothing but revel in his darkness.  I get that he’s a sexy man (I understand the Jon Hamm fascination more than the Draper one), but what is it about him that makes him so compelling to so many people?  Myself, I’m a Pete Campbell man.  (You can imagine Pete Campbell saying that, if it helps.)

NVC: Yeah, well, Pete Campbell is a pretty extraordinarily conceived character; I like him when he’s at his most wolfish. Don Draper is appealing because he’s an existential hero, an alpha male, and sophisticated without being snotty. Don is faced with all the dilemmas of modern life, and all the achingly human ones. I think the tension between conforming to what your family wants from you and participating in some kind of social harmony with those close to you versus hoisting the black flag, going into full tilt nihilism, denying yourself nothing, pouring all your energies into trying to create something with vitality while the void looms is a conflict that exists in many of us. I think the way we see Don deal with those dueling impulses is enthralling. Pure drama, in the Greek sense.

TM: What do you make of the critiques leveled against the show, specifically those that Mark Greif presents in his piece in the London Review of Books – that the show doesn’t actually present any moments of advertising genius (Don’s “It’s Toasted” slogan had been in use since 1917, for instance), that the characters mostly lack dimension, and that the writers luxuriate in all the things we can’t do anymore (snap the secretaries’ bras and pound bourbon in the boardroom)?  Any truth to that?

NVC: Ugh, gross! First of all I’m suspicious, actually, downright hostile to any critique that starts from the premise of a swindle; that the popularity of certain cultural objects coming from some kind of bamboozlement of its fans and that we need members of The Academy, like Greif, to parse the lie, is a bore. Also, while it might be a kicky-thrill for wall-eyed Brooklynites to revel in the un-PC nature of Sterling Cooper, I think it’s much less about back patting and thinking “Look how far we’ve come!” and more about wish fulfillment. That’s where the real kick comes from, a desire to fuck, drink, smoke, and behave badly with impunity. To the point about uninspired advertising: wrong!  You are dealing with inherently banal products, nylons, cigarettes, cameras, hairspray; what’s incredible about the show is the allure Draper and Co inject into them, even tag lines that we’ve heard before are refreshed by the narrative Don develops behind them and all the psychological reasoning that goes into that narrative. Also, Don coming up with a brilliant pitch for every product for every episode would turn the show into some NBC primetime gimmick. I point to Don’s Kodak pitch as evidence of high art and Greif’s wrongness.

TM: Give me three predictions for the show (not counting your call that baby Gene is done for, as I suspect you might be right about that).

NVC: Don and Betty will hatefuck at some point this season.  Sally Draper is going to mirror the social upheaval by being totally out of control. I see arson, adolescent lesbian — general terror.  I think one of the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is going to bail because those boutique, scrappy shops had a very short lifespan. I see a Campbell vs. Sterling showdown.  One of those guys will walk and be a rival. Maybe even Don?

TM: Will the blog continue for as long as the show does?

NVC: I think so. It still remains an impulse, to watch the show and catalogue.

TM: What do you think of the blog-to-book phenomenon?  While I don’t think it’s right for every blog (My personal blog never, ever needs to be printed and bound), I think this project was a perfect fit for it, and I think it makes sense as a business move.  There’s a built-in audience there (and doubly so in this case, because of the people who love the show who might not know about your book).

NVC: What I find puzzling about the blog to book phenomenon is that the focus has been on user generated sites when there are thousands of blogs that feature original content and commentary from a single author or a group of them.  The appeal of user-generated content is that it’s constant, instant, and evolving. These are elements that are the opposite of what books offer.  I think there’s plenty of room for all sorts of books; the way they are conceived is beside the point.  Nevertheless, I would like to see a book from Ivy Style or This Recording or David Bry’s Public Apology column from The Awl those are endlessly more fascinating than a collection of aloof hipster pictures with sarcastic captions.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Patrick has worked in the book business for over seven years, including a two-year stint as the webmaster and blogger for Vroman's Bookstore. He is currently the Community Manager for He's written book reviews for Publishers Weekly, and he's spoken about books and the internet at the LA Times Festival of Books, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association spring meetings, and the 140 Characters Conference. He writes the sporadically entertaining Tumblr blog The Feeling.

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