If you don’t follow Philip Galanes’s weekly advice column in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times, you’re missing out on a very entertaining read. In person, he’s much the same — quick to laugh, with a sharp, irreverent sense of humor.
Apart from his regular column, he also writes a monthly dispatch called Table for Three (for which he shares a meal and conversation with two public figures). He last interviewed Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, and Barbara Bush, the daughter and granddaughter of two former presidents.
Galanes, 53, splits his time between an apartment in Greenwich Village and a house, designed by Michael Haverland, an architect and his partner of 20 years, on Cove Hollow Road in East Hampton. It’s where he writes. Most mornings, he’s up by 6, hoping to log a few hours of work before taking his dog, a poodle “with a little something extra,” on a walk to nearby Georgica Beach.
When not writing for The Times, Galanes works as a part-time entertainment lawyer, occasional interior designer, and novelist. So far, he’s published two novels, Father’s Day and Emma’s Table, with a book of nonfiction now in the works.
Over the winter, Galanes and I met at Truth Training in East Hampton. It’s a merciless, 45-minute workout that combines rowing, jump-roping, and kettle bells. We’re both regular disciples.
You wear a bunch of different hats.
Well, let’s tick off the easy ones first. To call me an interior designer is ridiculous. Michael built our house out here mostly for the collection of furniture and art that I’d been putting together over many years. Before The New York Times came along, I used to have more time, so when his clients would come along, if I liked them, I would say, yeah, sure, I can do what I do. But I have a stylistic range from A to A minus and that’s about it.
And you’re also a lawyer?
I started out as a lawyer and I’m still a lawyer. I have a small roster, but it’s a roster that I feel very loyal to, since we’ve worked together for such a long time. And they’re also not freaked out that I do other things. Some people want to think of their lawyer as this little pinhead that sits in his room thinking about how to screw the other guy out of two more nickels. Having something that’s very logical and sensible and depends not on inspiration at all, well, it’s a wonderful side thing to have going on.
What’s your relationship to East Hampton?
This is the 10th year in our house. Before that, we used to rent this sweet little converted barn off Pantigo Road. Coming out here is a major factor in the success of my relationship with Michael. When we got together, he was a professor of architecture at Yale and I was in New York, working as a lawyer and a writer. It was always somebody going to somebody else’s turf. Out here, we had this zone that was our zone. It wasn’t me being slightly resentful about riding the train to New Haven or him thinking, Why am I always the one that has to go to New York? We had this together place — and life has been so much easier ever since.
Have you always been a writer?
I was working as a lawyer at a publishing and entertainment company . . . and I somehow started writing early in the morning before work, little scenes of things that I’d seen on the street. I started writing more and more and one of my first scenes — of a mother dropping off her unwilling child at daycare — morphed into my first novel. I wrote it over a period of a year and put it in a drawer and never expected to show it to anyone.
So how did your novel finally get published?
There’s actually a great East Hampton connection. I went to this Fourth of July party in Amagansett. I happened to be seated next to Judy Clain, this incredible editor at Little, Brown. I got drunk enough to say that I had a novel sitting in my drawer. She asked me to send her 50 pages. The novel eventually came out and nobody could have been more surprised than I.
And then what happened?
The novel came out and it got really great reviews, but the only problem was that it only sold like five copies. I didn’t connect with the marketplace. But then, I got a call from Mary Suh, an editor at The Times, who said that she really loved the voice of the novel and wondered whether I’d consider doing a weekly column. From the very first week, it took off and it’s been very popular for the past eight years. I feel extraordinarily lucky. The whole thing sort of grew out of something that was a terrible failure. It’s kind of an amazing life lesson: The answer to everything is just to keep going.
Are you a longtime reader of advice columns?
From the time I was a very small child, I’ve always loved Dear Abby. We used to get a morning paper delivered in Brattleboro, Vt., where I grew up, and I would read the questions aloud to my mom and dad and brothers, and they would try to predict her answer. After everybody took a turn, I would read the “correct,” Dear Abby, answer.
Do the Social Q’s questions fall from the clear blue sky? In other words, do you make them up?
They’re all real questions. Hundreds of people write every week to either submit a question or to take issue with an answer that I gave the prior week. You really have to have the right emotional setting when you open that email because it could be awful or wonderful. People saying, “I save you for last,” or “I read you first,” or “You’re the worst human being who’s ever existed and I hope you get stomach cancer and die.”
What is one question you’re bored of being asked?
Most questions related to the Bridal-Industrial Complex. People can get so carried away by their “big day,” as if no one had ever gotten married before. And the questions tend to skew to moneygrubbing: “Our reception dinner cost $50, but their gift was only worth $25.” They go straight to the bottom of the heap. The questions I love are the ones that you couldn’t make up: An Episcopalian who pretended to be Jewish to meet a cute guy on JDate. com — and has kept up the charade for three months! The guy who visits his new girlfriend’s family, only to leave smitten with her identical twin sister. Hello?!
Have you ever recognized a friend in a Social Q’s question?
Even better, I caught my mother — twice! — sending me veiled Social Q’s in which she was complaining about me. Very inventive!
Do you think our country is getting more or less civilized?
We are so polarized, right now, on so many political and social issues — with TV channels and newspapers that serve up only what we want to hear — that we’re forgetting how to speak with people we disagree with. It’s tragic. And the populist “War on Political Correctness” seems specifically designed to let people be cruel to the weakest among us. Still, I read hundreds of letters from people are who are just trying to be kind every week. I’m not giving up yet.
You’re a fast rower. Would you say you’re generally a competitive person?
I’m very competitive about fitting into my pants. That’s my big competition. As long as I fit into my pants, my workout is working.