“I always wanted to be an editor of Honi if I had stayed at Sydney University,” Amelia Lester tells me when we talk on Skype. It’s an amusingly small-time ambition in light of her current job as an editor at The New Yorker. But things might have turned out very differently for the Australian: twelve years ago she was an Arts/Law student at USYD, with no real interest in becoming a lawyer.
“I have only myself to blame,” she admits ruefully. “I really was just interested in being an English major.”
A graduate of North Sydney Girls’ High School, Lester had done well academically and had been involved in debating, and she attributes her decision to enrol in law to a perceived stigma around doing a plain Arts degree. “It’s just too bad,” she says of the way high-achieving school-leavers often feel pressured to enrol in Law, “because certainly our society needs lawyers, but it also needs lots of other people”. She enjoyed her semester, but struggled with the Law.
“Who knows, if I’d completed my Law degree, it maybe would have felt like a waste not to become a lawyer,” she speculates.
But Lester did not end up traipsing begrudgingly down the path of a legal career. Instead, she made headlines in 2009 when, at the extraordinarily young age of 26, she was appointed as managing editor of The New Yorker. To its subscribers, the magazine is a good friend who visits weekly, telling important stories with wit, whimsy, and intelligence. It is far, far, better than anything that’s published in Australia.
“Talk about everything I’d ever wanted,” Lester says of working at the magazine. It was always her ambition to be a magazine editor. “That’s been a constant for me since I was very young.”
It was to be an American dream. Lester was accepted into Harvard (where she had applied “on a whim”), leaving Sydney after just one semester to join her brother Ashley, a USYD graduate and PhD student at MIT, in the United States. While studying a broad liberal arts degree, she worked as an editor and occasional writer at the student newspaper’s weekend magazine, and then moved to New York to work at the prestigious Wylie Agency, which represents writers like Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie. She only planned to stay in New York for a year, but a colleague, whose boyfriend worked at The New Yorker, offered to arrange an interview at the publication she had discovered in college and loved.
And then, for the next two and a half years, she was a fact-checker at The New Yorker. Her role, she says, was “to tell much more capable and accomplished people exactly where they had gone wrong.”
It’s a job that suits the intellectually curious, and Lester describes it as interesting and fun. She had to check not just dates and spelling, but the big picture, ensuring that pieces were accurate and fair, which involved speaking to all the reporter’s sources and essentially re-reporting the piece.
She says she was never intimidated by the people she spoke to. “The institutional respect that is accorded to fact-checkers at The New Yorker is really special and very strong,” she explains. “As a fact-checker you have to assume a confidence that maybe sometimes you shouldn’t have and not worry about the fact that the person you’re talking to is maybe older, more experienced and wiser than you.”
“As a fact-checker you have to assume a confidence that maybe sometimes you shouldn’t have and not worry about the fact that the person you’re talking to is maybe older, more experienced and wiser than you.”
After moving to an editorial role at the Paris Review, a literary quarterly, Lester heard that the managing editor position back at The New Yorker was opening. Despite her youth and lack of managerial experience, she sent an email to the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, asking if he would consider her. He did.
“He was worried about the fact that I was young and there wasn’t a lot that I could say to him to reassure him because I didn’t know if I could do it either,” she admits, crediting her assertiveness with winning her the job. She had checked a few of Remnick’s own pieces and, she speculates, from that he probably “knew that I had no problem being bossy and thought that was a good quality for a managerial role”. She also puts it down to her straightforward nature, something she sees as distinctly Australian.
One might think that it would be difficult to be taken seriously as a twenty-something in charge at an eighty-something-year-old magazine. Lester firmly denies that her youth was a problem. The New Yorker workplace, she says, is non-hierarchical, which she puts down to the lack of masthead and the relentless workload.
“The New Yorker is usually around 90 pages a week and there’s just no time for people to stand on ceremony or to grandstand,” she explains. “It’s quite an extraordinary environment because everyone’s united in this common goal of just wanting to put out a great magazine and there’s no time for anything else.”
In conversation, Lester underplays her own initiative in crafting her successful career, making each step sound like another happy accident, opportunity after opportunity popping up serendipitously.
“It sounds funny to say and maybe people won’t believe me when I say this but I never sat down and mapped out what I wanted to do. I was not strategic about any of this,” she claims.
That may be so, but it takes a determined and impressive person to get to where she did by their mid-twenties. During our conversation, Lester was charming, remarkable given that it was early on a Sunday morning New York time and she had only recently woken up. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a woman who works in an industry which essentially trades in ideas, Lester is thoughtful, letting her thoughts form before saying them aloud. “What do you do with a BA in English?” sings one of the characters despairingly in the musical Avenue Q. Plenty, if you’re bright, driven and personable.
Although her expatriate status seems settled, Lester keeps in touch with Australian media and politics. In 2012, she authored a widely circulated blog post on the New Yorker website on Julia Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’, which in its recognition of the power of the speech seemed to get it in a way that Australian mainstream media didn’t. The closest thing to the quality long-form reading in The New Yorker in Australia is probably The Monthly, which Lester says she likes “a lot”. She also keeps up with the Sydney Morning Herald and Guardian Australia, especially during election season.
But, she argues, “I’m not going out on a limb to say that it would be great to see some more media diversity, particularly in news coverage, that there is right now.” A news junkie since a young age, she reads the New York Times on the subway to work every morning. “That pretty much sets me up to know what I need to know about the world going into my work day,” she says, “and I’m not sure that there’s an equivalent print outlet in Australia that could that for me at this point.”
A few months ago, Lester transitioned from managing editor to section editor, re-imagining the ‘Goings On About Town’ section, which presents the art, culture and entertainment on offer in New York. She’s also writing restaurant reviews and editing the food issue of the magazine, to come out in November. After more than six years all up at The New Yorker, she still sounds like that rare person who genuinely loves her job. Part of that is a sincere delight in the publication she first discovered in college and now helps to create.
“I think people appreciate that what is within the two covers of The New Yorker has been really thought about and agonised over in a way that the media in general is moving away from perhaps,” she says.
“It’s nice to be able to pick it up and know that it was not dashed off.”