Meghan Daum’s Manifest Destiny

110705 article kolhatkar Meghan Daum’s Manifest DestinyOn Oct. 12, the Los Angeles Times announced a new addition to its opinion page. “We were looking for more people who were local,” op-ed editor Nicholas Goldberg said two weeks later by phone. And so the paper will now include a column by Los Angeles resident Meghan Daum.

Meghan Daum? Wasn’t she in Nebraska or somewhere?

Well, once upon a time she was, anyway. In 1999, Ms. Daum made her name with “My Misspent Youth,” a New Yorker essay describing how the vain pursuit of the New York lifestyle had left her $75,000 in debt—and how, therefore, for the sake of clarity and responsibility, she was quitting Manhattan and moving to Lincoln, Neb.

At the time, the essay was the sort of piece that everyone in the striving classes had to read, either to love it or to hate it. “To me, this kind of space did not connote wealth,” she wrote, describing the oak-floored Woody Allen–ish apartment she’d fetishized throughout her New Jersey youth. “These were places where smart people sat around drinking gin and tonics, having interesting conversations, and living, according to my logic, in an authentic way.”

But the apartment and what went with it—$45 dinners out, weekly fresh-cut flowers—were a crippling pose, one that left her unable to handle her dental bills. And rather than trying Queens, Ms. Daum declared her intention to chuck it all and move to the affordable heart of America.

So she did. Living in Lincoln, Ms. Daum did commentaries for NPR about the rural life and “driving along the gravel roads”; she appeared on an episode of Oprah Winfrey about people who had made radical changes in their lives; she wrote for magazines such as Harper’s and Vogue, and the Web site Beliefnet.

And she wrote a well-received novel—The Quality of Life Report, about a woman who chucks it all and moves from New York to “Prairie City.”

“I have a great love for that landscape, and the big sky and the prairie,” Ms. Daum said by phone from her current home in Echo Park in Los Angeles, where she’s lived for two years.

Ms. Daum praised the effects of her time among the farmers. “I didn’t like the kind of person I was becoming in New York,” she said. Living in Nebraska, “I think it made me a much better person, a much more interesting person. Maybe ‘interesting’ isn’t really the word. [But] I have less interest in conversations that are entirely about stuff that people heard on NPR, or the media-obsessed buzz and sensibility. I’m much happier to kind of interact with people who are who they are—I really have very little interest in people’s social qualifications.”

Well, then, what happened to that rural idyll?

“A lot of what happened in Nebraska was that my whole career started to be about having moved to Nebraska,” Ms. Daum said. “And after a while, I started to feel like I’d said everything I had to say about it.”

Moreover, if the simple life cost less money, it also paid less. Ms. Daum took other jobs to make ends meet—including marketing work for a social-service agency—but, she said, “I just wasn’t making any money. I think I made $12,000 one year.”

So: Goodbye, cornfields—hello, freeways! In 2003, Ms. Daum slid the rest of the way across the continent. There, she wrote the screenplay of the novel that she’d moved to Lincoln to write.

Unsuccessful in two bids to buy Nebraska farms, Ms. Daum is now a homeowner in Echo Park. The Quality of Life Report script has been optioned twice, according to Ms. Daum, and is currently under option to Nicole Kidman, for Ms. Kidman to produce.

Ms. Daum has also been teaching, doing more freelancing and working on another book, this one about “real estate as fetish.” She said the Times column, which she has been writing for several weeks on a trial basis, will be “the stuff that I’ve always been interested in—social politics, class identity issues, certain gender issues. But its not a ‘woman’s column.’ I’m not trying to be Anna Quindlen or anything like that.”

The Los Angeles Times, and the opinion page in particular, has been undergoing some remodeling as of late. After the short-lived, tinkering-intensive tenure of Michael Kinsley as opinion boss, Andres Martinez, the new editorial-page editor, announced his own round of moves: Gregory Rodriguez, who has been writing for other sections of the paper, will be writing a weekly column on the op-ed page; Joel Stein—the ex-Time magazine ex-wunderkind brought on by Kinsley—who has been writing a column about Hollywood in the Sunday Current section (one recent piece was about how E! hadn’t paid him yet for some work he did), will be moving to the op-ed page to write a “general interest” column. Mr. Goldberg said that “more changes are coming,” but he wouldn’t specify what.

As for Ms. Daum, she fit a whole bunch of categories: “She lives here,” Mr. Goldberg said. “She’s a woman, which we like. She writes about culture. We’re always looking for people who write about things that are not straight politics, who can create an intelligent argument around a cultural issue or debate in the world of universities or advertising or in the movies or TV. That’s stuff that we need on the op-ed page.”

And Ms. Daum sounded happy to be there. “For the kind of work I like to do, writing for a newspaper has been the most satisfying experience!” said Ms. Daum. “I’ve been a magazine writer for so long, I always thought newspaper writing would be very dry, but it’s quite the opposite. I’m allowed to be much smarter in the L.A. Times than I’ve been allowed to in any other publication. I think a lot of writers feel that way.”

Though a weekly newspaper column seems like a fairly secure gig, Ms. Daum said that her money troubles still haven’t completely disappeared. “It’s getting old,” she said of the freelance life. “I’m torn. Some days I think, ‘This is awful—I’m just going to get a job at Wal-Mart for the health insurance, if they still offer it.’ But some days I think, ‘This is great—I get to travel.’”

Would Ms. Daum consider moving back to New York if things improved? “Obviously, I would love to be in a position to have my house here and have a farm in Nebraska and have an apartment in New York, and maybe someday that’ll happen,” said Ms. Daum. “I miss my friends in New York a lot but I also see them plenty and go back plenty. I don’t think my dog would want to move back to New York. I think Joan Didion’s line, that it’s a place for the very rich and the very young, still holds up, and I’m not young any more and I’m not rich.”