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2012 December 18

The Assistant Files, Vol. 34: Eric Sullivan, GQ's Jim Nelson

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(NEW YORK) Consider this a Daily holiday gift, darlings: after a few months of missing your weekly assistant deliciousness, meet Eric Sullivan, right-hand-man to GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson for the past two years. Wesleyan grad Sullivan, 28, was fully entrenched in pre-med mode before switching gears to give it a go in the journalism orbit. First stop, Mother Jones; then, it was a bicoastal 180° of sorts to hit Conde's glossy halls. A very dapper addition to the series, nonBY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV

What’s your backstory?
I was a neuroscience major as an undergrad at Wesleyan, and I had every intention of going to medical school. I’d applied, gotten in, and then panicked about going because I didn’t really know if I wanted to do science. I moved to Philadelphia, where I was doing clinical research and also freelancing for the Metro, which is a daily paper they hand out on the trains. My roommate at the time, whom I’d met randomly on Craigslist, was the entertainment editor there—so every day I’d come home from my clinical research science job and beg her to let me write for the newspaper…and she’d always say no. Finally she had me go to a performance and write a review, as a sort of test story.

So why didn’t you stay on the med school track?
When it was time to actually go, I was like, “Woah, I do not want to do this.” So I deferred from med school for one year, went to San Francisco, continued to do clinical work, and was also volunteering at 826 Valencia, the writing program that Dave Eggers started in San Francisco, working with 7-to-13-year-olds on putting together a monthly newsletter. I helped a 7-year-old write a piece on stinkbugs, for example. I deferred for a second year at medical school, and then decided, screw it; I didn’t want to go. I quit my job in clinical research and was a little uncertain about what I wanted to do. 

How did you foray into journalism?
I found this internship at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco, called the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship, which is a six-month internship with a stipend. I applied and was promptly rejected. Three weeks later, I got a call from the program coordinator and had an interview. It’s largely a fact-checking position, but it’s also a great introduction to the world of magazines. It was perfect for me, since I’d dabbled in media, mostly newspapers, but had never worked in magazines.

What led you to GQ?
Three months into my internship at Mother Jones, a close friend of mine from college, Stan Parish, who was Jim's assistant at the time, called me because he was moving up at the magazine and Jim therefore needed a new assistant. So I went to Clara Jeffrey, one of the editors-in-chief at Mother Jones, and told her I was going to interview for the job at GQ, and that I'd love a recommendation from Clara. Turns out, Clara knew Jim very well and he's one of her closest media friends—they'd worked together  at Harper's 15 years earlier. Between Stan and Clara's recommendations, I got a call from Conde HR shortly after asking me to fly out in two days to interview; two weeks later, I got a call offering me the job, in October 2010. 

Did it help to have a recommendation?
Yes. Jim had an immediate trust in me because Stan vouched for me—that put Jim in a position where he was much more willing to accept me into his life. Stan was huge help in the beginning. I’d ask him how to make dinner reservations, for example, and he’d tell me to do X, Y and Z.

What did you wear to your interview?
I called Stan and asked him what to wear. I don’t think I even owned a suit at that point. So Stan went to the GQ fashion department and said, “this guy Eric is coming in to interview, do you have any suggestions?” They said to get the Ludlow suit at J. Crew. I had no idea what that was! The one thing I forgot to ask about was shoes, though. I forgot to buy a nice pair, so I was wearing Clarks desert boots and this new Ludlow suit that I’d changed into in a Times Square Starbucks.

Are you and Stan similar? Does Jim have a type?
I think Stan and I are pretty different, but I didn’t know Stan as Jim’s assistant. Sometimes I think to myself I would love to be a fly on the wall when Stan was an assistant to Jim just to see how it went down.

Tell me about your early days at GQ.
The entire first year was really a crash course in magazines for me. The great thing about being the assistant to the EIC is you get a bird’s eye view of the magazine. That first week was very different than Mother Jones: I went from a magazine critiquing capitalism, to a magazine selling masculinity. It was sort of a great contrast.

Any surprises?
I was shocked by the number of hours I work—in any given week, it’s 60-plus hours. I had never worked that hard in my life, but I loved every minute of it. That immediate immersion was like jumping into a cold body of water; it was a shock.

How would you describe your rapport with Jim?
It’s sort of a weird friendship blend. I mean, obviously, he is my boss and I am his assistant. But we work closely with one another. It’s not like I’m just planning his schedule—I’m generally pretty involved in his life. I probably know more about Jim than I know about any of my friends! For the first year, it was this balance of me getting to know Jim and Jim getting to know me. Once I accomplished that, I think we became pretty close. I’ll bounce ideas off him, and he’ll ask for my feedback.

Jim’s surely a busy guy. How do you get his attention?
I don’t like to send him 15 emails in the morning about things he has to do. I like to wait until he comes in: I’ll drop him a list of things he has to do in person, because he gets such a high volume of emails. Jim also waits until the day of to plan dinners or lunch reservations. If he has a dinner in a week, I won’t ask him where he wants to go until that day.

What’s your daily grind?
I get to the office between 9:30 and 9:45 a.m.; Jim gets in a little bit later. I check my emails and respond to things that came up the night before. A lot of my day is planning meetings for Jim, and setting up editorial meetings. Jim will also ask me to check on the status of various stories, so I’ll go talk to editors about them. The thing about being Jim’s assistant is that there is always something more to be done! At this point, I have planning trips down to a science. 

Back to that resy-scoring intel: what’s the secret?
It’s actually surprisingly easy! You just call up and explain who he is. Restaurants want him there. Jim likes to go to certain restaurants where they know him. He’s a big food guy, so people appreciate him for that. 

The restaurants and making reservations, where are his go-to spots?
Jim loves Lupa, The John Dory, and he goes to Esca all the time because it’s close by the office. He loves Battersby in Brooklyn; and he’s a big wine guy, so he loves places like Hearth. The food is also extremely important. When he travels, I have to find good restaurants wherever he is going. A lot of his trips are work related—but it’s really work combined with great restaurants.

Do you think you could moonlight as a travel agent at this point?
No, because we rely on a travel company that works with Conde. But it is my job to find the cool stuff to do when Jim is traveling!

How much do you get to write?
I write for the site—for example, I had this ongoing series about P90X; I decided to give it a try and write about it because Paul Ryan famously does it. It was Jim’s idea! He thought we should have an editor do P90X and blog about it leading up to the election. Each week there was a picture of Paul Ryan making a pose—and then me doing the same pose. Kind of goofy stuff. 

Any opps in print?
I’m becoming more involved; I have single-page pieces coming up in the January and March issues, and a three-pager in May. I often contribute to packages on everything from whiskey to "Where to Take Her." I also write the table of contents every month. As I’ve become more comfortable being Jim’s assistant and things have become more efficient, it’s freed up time to be able to work on pieces for print. 

Do you ever take a stab at editing?
Absolutely, I try to read the piece and listen to the editing meeting. So I get to follow what Jim says, but I also formulate my own opinion on the piece. The fact that he wants me to be a part of that process is one of the greatest things Jim has taught me. I'm also bringing new writers onboard — Adam Weinstein is writing about fatherhood for, and I have a few other folks with whom I'm bouncing around ideas.

Are you more interested in being an editor or writer in the longterm?
I think that being an editor is where I want to be. I like writing, but I’m not sure that I have an innate talent for it as I do for editing. I can generally read a piece, no matter how clean or how much of a mess it is, and sort of rearrange it to make it that much better. Editing by nature is collaborative and conversational, as opposed to just sitting in front of a computer screen.

Has working at GQ made you more dapper in how you approach your closet?
Absolutely. I came into GQ knowing nothing about clothes. [Ed. Note: per Sullivan’s GQ interview outfit, above.] Though I’m still far from perfect. 

Does your premed background ever come in handy at GQ?
I would love to say yes, but the answer is no.

What’s the best advice Jim has given you thus far?
It isn’t just one nugget of wisdom that he’s passed along—like, the holy grail of being an editor or anything. The greatest thing I’ve learned from Jim is the close and thorough approach he applies to the editorial process. I get to see pieces in their earliest stages at the same time Jim does, which allows me to watch a story morph through the editing stages toward perfection.

Is there a big Conde assistant culture?
There isn’t a culture, but I am not opposed to one. There just isn’t a lot of cross pollination between publications: Everyone is kind of doing their own thing on different floors. 

Do you hang out in the Conde café?
No, I get my lunch and eat it at my desk every day. From the moment I get into the office to the moment I leave, I am at my desk.

What’s your five year plan, Eric?
I would love to be an editor at GQ. I love the way Jim gives his editors freedom to work on different things, and I think GQ is an ideal place for me. It’s a great magazine for the type of person who has a wide variety of interests, not just fashion, but instead spanning food, travel, and politics. GQ has a place for all of those things, from a great shoe to a woman’s experience with a serial killer.

What makes you tick the most when you open a copy of GQ?
As corny as it sounds, the whole thing. 

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