In March 2014, Jake Silverstein was tapped for one of the top jobs in journalism: the editorship of the New York Times Magazine. A 1993 graduate of Berkeley High School, Silverstein, 39, has deep roots — and a deep affinity — for Berkeley. Surprisingly, he didn’t write for the Berkeley High Jacket, but he did pen stories for the high school’s literary magazine and acted with an independent theater group. His first real professional journalism piece was an East Bay Express story on Ed Gong, the famed piano mover.
Silverstein is a poet, author of the 2010 fiction/non-fiction hybrid book, Nothing Happened and Then it Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction, and a barbecue lover. His deep love of long-form narrative nonfiction took him from the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, Texas to the editorship of the Texas Monthly which was nominated under his stewardship for 12 National Magazine Awards. It won four, including one for general excellence.
He grew up in an intellectual family in Oakland. Silverstein’s mother, Marsha Silverstein, is a psychotherapist in Berkeley who also works with the Ann Martin Center. His father, Murray Silverstein, is a poet and an architect with the Berkeley firm JSWD Architects. He is also the co-author of numerous books, including Dorms at Berkeley: An Environmental Analysis and Patterns of Home: The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design. (Silverstein used his father’s business address to get into Berkeley High.)
Silverstein was in Berkeley recently to give the keynote address at The Latest in Longform: The Berkeley Narrative Journalism Conference 2014. For many of the journalists in the room, there was one overriding question: will Silverstein’s West Coast upbringing (and his years in Texas, another sort of western frontier) give a different spin to the Gray Lady?
You said you went to Chabot, then Willard and BHS. Did you ever live in Berkeley or did you just live in Oakland? Which part?
I grew up in Rockridge, near College and Claremont. Never lived in Berkeley proper.
How did growing up in the East Bay influence your world outlook?
The East Bay definitely shaped my view of the world. Growing up there exposes you to so much. I credit a lot of my curiosity about the world to having come up in a place that fed that curiosity and encouraged it. The East Bay is also an earnest place (sometimes to a fault!) and that’s in me as well, for better and for worse.
How is the West Coast different from the East Coast in its outlook and literary/journalistic sensibility? Do you plan to try and bring this perspective to the New York Times Magazine? If so, how will you do this?
It’s dangerous to oversimplify these things, but I do think the East Coast, with its older institutions and deeper legacies, is a more tradition-bound place than the West Coast. And that creeps into the literary and journalistic sensibility. My job at the Times is to bring in a whole range of perspectives.
You attended Willard and Berkeley High School and graduated in 1993. Did you write for any literary or journalistic publications. Which ones? Can you describe how your interest in writing evolved from poetry and stories to journalism and narrative non-fiction?
I wrote for various BHS lit mags, and was also a proud member of Emerald Rain Productions, the rag tag theater company that put on shows — mostly rock musicals — in the basement of La Val’s Pizza. My very first piece of published journalism was in the East Bay Express, a profile of a piano mover named Ed Gong. So I’ve always been interested in a variety of kinds of writing.
Where were your regular hangouts in Berkeley? Favorite places to eat? Favorite Berkeley High tradition?
We used to leave BHS and go get food at Edy’s sometimes, when it was still there. And we’d go get burritos and wander around Cal. Hangouts… let’s see. Most of my hangouts were my friends’ houses, but I spent a lot of time when I was in junior high at Berkeley Iceland, even though I was a terrible ice skater, and on Telegraph at Cody’s and Moe’s. I used to love the fire trail in Strawberry Canyon. We went to a lot of A’s games, ate a lot of nachos in the bleachers. My first job in high school was at Espresso Roma on College Avenue.
When you come for a visit, where do you like to go?
Anywhere. I love coming back. The minute I get off the plane I feel at home. It’s something about the light.
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