New York Times’ ‘Modern Love’ column editor Daniel Jones discusses work, love, Amazon at the Commonwealth Club

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Daniel Jones started the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column in 2004 after advocating for reader-submitted columns on love, life and loss — a departure from the typical commissioned essays of the style section. Fifteen years later, and the column has exploded to include a college essay contest, 100-word “Tiny Love Stories” from around the world, a podcast and, as of last week, an Amazon mini-series of the same name. Over the years, Jones estimates he has read over 100,000 columns and spoken to hundreds of essayists, curating and collecting what he refers to as “people’s most important stories.”

As part of an Amazon Studios promotional screening, Jones sat down with Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, a clinical assistant professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Thursday night to discuss the new TV show, the evolution of the column and his take on love.

The night started with a screening of the “most heavily adapted” episode, titled “Hers Was a World of One.” The episode was adapted from Dan Savage’s 2005 essay “DJ’s Homeless Mommy.” Sweet, heartbreaking and genuine (a “Modern Love” trifecta of characteristics), the episode follows Andy (Brandon Kyle Goodman) and Tobin (Andrew Scott) as they navigate adopting the child of Karla (Olivia Cooke), a woman who proclaims to be homeless by choice. After Andy and Tobin invite Karla into their lives, the couple and their child’s mother navigate each other’s worlds, forcing them to acknowledge everyone’s freedom to choose how to live their lives. The episode is engaging and heartfelt but lacks the honesty or reality of the column.

What does Daniel Jones think about the on-screen adaptation of his column? He’s excited, he told Dr. Kalanithi. An adaptation idea surfaced five years ago and was purchased by HBO, but the pilot was unable to garner enough funding to continue. Since then, television has evolved as streaming services like Amazon and Hulu are redefining what a television show can be, and “Modern Love” has benefited. For Jones, the process has been a new one. At the New York Times, his authors trust him to bring his experience to shaping their stories, whereas when working on the TV show, he had to trust writer and director John Carney to faithfully bring these (real-life) stories to life.

For Jones, the show is a success. Even after having read the scripts and watched the taping of parts of episodes, Jones was still overtaken by the finished project. He recounted to audiences his story of intending to watch one episode before getting up early for work the next morning, but instead finding himself sobbing his way through all eight. Moreover, he is proud of the way the show captures and promotes the optimism of the column. Even when love is painful, or problematic, or there’s no true resolution, each story provides a hopeful offering to the universe. Not all have happy endings, but for Jones, each presents love in a real and honest way, without sucking all the hope out of the world.

And the authors of the eight adapted essays? They are overwhelmed, Jones explained. Most are thrilled to have been selected from over 700 possible essays, but none expected the strange phenomenon of seeing themselves portrayed on-screen. To tell one’s “most important story” and then have it published in the New York Times, read by a well-known actor on the podcast and then to watch an actor play you on the screen “is a little weird,” Jones explained.

Dr. Kalanithi then turned the mic over to the audience and moderated a series of audience-submitted questions on what stands out in an essay (the ending), or what kills an essay (curation and lack of humility). After discussing his experience in reading so many love stories, Jones was asked, “So are you the love guru?” He laughed, recognizing his unlikely access to the hearts of so many Americans.

So what is true love to Daniel Jones? In short — E.T. “He heals wounds and tells people to be good,” Jones explained. For him, love, in all of its forms, puts us back together when we are broken again, allowing us to be our best selves. If you don’t believe it, go read some of the best “Modern Love” essays (or the favorite of this Daily Californian reporter) and then get back to him.

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].