My grandfather was a refugee from Nazi Germany, but he had, as a kid, read these Westerns by a guy named Karl May. They’re very, very famous in Germany, and they are adventure stories set in the American West. When he immigrated to the U.S., he took his kids—my mother and her sister—out West to sort of live out these adventures he’d read as a kid. And then it obviously made a big impression on my mom, and then she took us. And so that was the background to these trips. And as I say, they did make a big impression on me and I thought I, too, should go have adventures out West.
Fadulu: What did your parents do?
Kolbert: My dad was a doctor, an eye doctor. And my mom, throughout much of my childhood, was a stay-at-home mom, very active in local politics, on the school board, things like that.
Fadulu: Did they have a career path in mind for you?
Kolbert: They were not at all prescriptive in that way. I think my dad would’ve been happy if I had been interested in medicine. One summer when I was in high school he did arrange for me to have an internship, I guess you’d call it, at the hospital where he worked, and I proceeded to contaminate a lot of the equipment. I think it became clear pretty early on that [medicine] was not going to pan out.
Fadulu: How would you describe your younger self?
Kolbert: I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and I was probably very much a product of the time, of rebelling against, to a certain extent, what seemed to be the conventionality and 9-to-5-ism of suburban life.
Fadulu: There was something about suburban life that just didn’t feel like it was for you.
Kolbert: Well, it wasn’t just suburbia. It was really more the sense that you were just going to … just tick off certain things. Do X, do Y, and then find yourself following a path that everyone had already followed before and that had been laid out for you before. That was very much part of the zeitgeist, and I definitely absorbed that. I didn’t want to just go off and work for some corporation, work for some institution and be subsumed in that.
Fadulu: Do you feel you’ve followed a path?
Kolbert: Well, as it turned out I did sort of follow a path, but it was not a path I knew about as a kid.
This is what happened: I studied German literature in college, and I thought I might go on and study German literature. I got a fellowship to go to Germany, and I very quickly decided that [becoming an academic] was not what I was going to do. I was kind of bumming around Europe, and I tried my hand at writing things.
I’d worked on the high-school paper; I’d worked on the college paper. I’ve always been attracted to journalism. And I wrote a bunch of stuff that actually made it into the travel section of The New York Times. And then I came back and got a really entry-level job.
This was a different era when, at the Times, there was a very clear path. You got a clerical job. You were not even a secretary; you were called a clerk or a copy person. Copy person was a term left over from the days when Times reporters would type stories on sheets of carbon paper. And then you would rip out—it was called a “take.” You’d rip out one take, which is basically one page, one sheet of carbon paper, and you’d yell, “Copy.” And the copy person would come take it from you, and then distribute these copies to the editors to lay out or whatever.