undefinedOn the set of Mad Men with Jon Hamm during Season 5.

Born in 1965, Matthew Weiner is barely old enough to remember the period with which his television series Mad Men has now become almost synonymous. His office is exactly what one might hope for the creator of Don Draper: a stylish mixture of midcentury modern furniture, with a cabinet full of top-shelf liquor. But it turns out that the furniture came with the building, which was designed in 1955, and the liquor, mostly gifts, is wasted on Weiner, who hardly drinks at all.

Weiner’s sensibility reveals itself on closer inspection. A framed still from the set is shot from behind the actors’ heads, showing the crew. There’s a black-and-white photograph of Groucho Marx, Alice Cooper, and Marvin Hamlisch in conversation. There’s a homemade Father’s Day card by one of Weiner’s four sons, reading “Dad Men” in red and black crayon. There’s a picture of Stedman (Oprah’s boyfriend), because when Vanity Fair photographed Weiner’s desk soon after Oprah’s, he asked what she’d had on hers. His bookshelf overflows with fiction, essays, and poetry—from Diaries of Old Manhattan to Billy Collins to Moby-Dick.

A former Jeopardy! champion who once, rather than give notes, jumped up and danced to “Zou Bisou Bisou” for Jessica Paré (Megan Draper on the show), Weiner seems never to sleep. Our interview took place in four sessions that spanned almost eighteen months—real months, that is. More time than that passed on the show during the same period, but to say exactly how much would be, in Weiner’s universe, a spoiler. We spoke late into the night after he had spent full days in preproduction meetings, in editing, in sound-mixing sessions, on set, and in the writers’ room—and we could only sit down to talk on the rare nights when he didn’t have to write. Even with this schedule, he comes in every morning inspired by a movie he’s seen, an article he’s read, or a poem he’s remembered. (I’m lucky to be a writer on the show.) Weiner begins every season by rereading John Cheever’s preface to his Collected Stories: “A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas off a fork. He appears much alone and determined to instruct himself.” The life of a showrunner leaves him almost no time to be alone, but Weiner seems always to be instructing himself.

Semi Chellas

 

WEINER

You know, I got a subscription to The Paris Review when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I read those interviews all the time. They were really helpful.

INTERVIEWER

How did they help you?

WEINER

There were people talking about writing like it was a job, first of all. And then saying “I don’t know” a lot. It’s helpful, when you’re a kid, to hear someone saying “I don’t know.” Also, they were asking questions that I would’ve asked, only I’d have been embarrassed to ask them. Like, What time of day do you write?

INTERVIEWER

What time of day do you write?

WEINER

I write at night on this job because I have to, except Sundays when I write all day and all night. Left to my own devices I will always end up writing late at night, because I’m a procrastinator. But if there’s a deadline, I will write round the clock.

INTERVIEWER

Did you know when you were a kid that writing was the job you wanted?

WEINER

I wanted to be a writer, but the way my family thought of writers, that would have been like saying, I want to be quarterback of the football team or president of the United States. My parents had the books every Jewish family had—My Name Is Asher LevQB VIIO Jerusalem!—but they were also really into Joseph Heller, and my dad took Swann’s Way on every vacation. I always thought I would be a novelist, like the people whose books I saw lying around the house.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read those books?

WEINER

Not really. I read very slowly. I’m a good listener. If they’d had books on tape back then, I would be the best-read person in the world. When I had to do a report on Measure for Measure, I went and got the records, and I listened to John Gielgud do it. My dad read Mark Twain to us at night. I loved “The Stolen White Elephant” and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” And The Prince and the Pauper, oh my God, did I love that. I read Madmagazine and stuff, but my parents were always yelling at me, You need to read more! Crack a book already! I was not really a reader until I left college. My favorite form of writing is still the short story. Winesburg, Ohio was the first book that I read where I recognized the people in it. I knew the teacher who was sort of gay and couldn’t control his hands. I recognized everybody in there. And then, with John Cheever, I recognized myself in the voice of the narrator. His voice sounds like the voice in my head—or what I wish it sounded like.

INTERVIEWER

Who are your favorite writers?

WEINER

I don’t make lists or rank writers. I can only say which ones are relevant to me. Salinger holds my attention, Yates holds my attention. John O’Hara doesn’t, I don’t know why—it’s the same environment, but he doesn’t. Cheever holds my attention more than any other writer. He is in every aspect of Mad Men, starting with the fact that Don lives in Ossining on Bullet Park Road—the children are ignored, people have talents they can’t capitalize on, everyone is selfish to some degree or in some kind of delusion. I have to say, Cheever’s stories work like TV episodes, where you don’t get to repeat information about the characters. He grabs you from the beginning.

Poems have always held my attention, but they’re denser and smaller. It’s funny because poetry is considered harder to read. It wasn’t harder for me. Close reading, that is. Milton, Chaucer, Dante—I could handle those for some reason, but not fiction. From ninth grade on, I wrote poetry compulsively, and pushed myself to do iambic pentameter and rhymes because free verse was cheating—anybody could do that. But I was such a terrible student. I couldn’t sustain anything.

INTERVIEWER

What pointed you toward drama?

WEINER

Actually, I think it has something to do with my not being a great reader. When a play’s put up, it’s all there in front of you. When you’re a little kid who has trouble with long books, it’s a very literary experience to go see Eugene O’Neill. During high school, I wrote skits, I did improv, I was a performer. My senior year in high school I was elected by my class to give a speech at graduation. It was seven or eight minutes of stand-up comedy, including a salute to the bottom fifth of the class, of which I was part. The dad of a classmate of mine, a guy named Allan Burns, who created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, came up to me afterward. He said, Have you ever thought about writing for TV? You could do that.