Michelle Slatalla isn’t a technology geek; gadgets and gewgaws don’t necessarily excite her. But the longtime journalist likes to explore how people use technology and why. A former Newsday New York reporter, Slatalla started writing about technology in the mid-1990s, and has co-authored several books with her husband, Josh Quittner, a technology columnist/editor for Times. In 2006, she wrote “The Town on Beaver Creek,” her first solo book and a loving tribute to the perseverance of the residents of the tiny Kentucky town in which her mother grew up. But Slatalla is perhaps best known for her New York Times columns, first Online Shopper, then Cyberfamilias and now Wife/Mother/Worker/Spy.
Michelle Slatalla and her husband work out of the Mill Valley, Calif., home they share with their three daughters, Zoe, 19, Ella, 17, and Clementine, 11. Her next book is a humorous look at her family’s move from the East Coast to the West Coast; it’s due to be published in spring 2010.
You have three daughters; how do handle being a working mom?
I know it’s fashionable to think there’s something hard about having a job and a family. I’m not sure why. We do lots of things in the course of a day, and nobody asks us how do you juggle having friends with having to go to the grocery store. It’s sort of simplistic to set it up in either/or terms. My mother always said to me, “There are 24 hours in a day; why don’t you fill them up with as many things that you like to do?” When they were younger, I was more tired, but that just comes with having younger children.
You were the Digital Diva for the Discovery Channel Online and then the New York Times' online columnist. How did you get interested in the cyberworld, and how did you, as a woman, infiltrate what has been considered “man's work”?
(My husband) and I covered a story about a bunch of computer hackers. These lads considered themselves in a cyberwar with another hacker gang. My husband and I were looking around for a book project to do and we decided to write a book about them. That’s when I first started covering computers . . .I never wrote about technology for the sake of technology; I write about the intersection between technology and life, and whether technology and its advantages make our lives easier or not and in what ways.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
Probably what any writer would say; we’re all going through the same stages and questions and challenges, and it’s something incredibly luxurious and wonderful to be able to kind of put it into context that’s broader because you’re a writer.
You often write about your kids and your husband in your columns. Does it bother them? How do you reconcile their need for privacy and your need to have them be “guinea pigs”?
Whenever I write about family, neighbors, friends, I’m never going to make them the butt of the joke. If anyone is, it’s going to be me. There are things in other people’s lives that aren’t mine to publicize. The challenge is balancing the journalist’s mission, to always place the greatest loyalty to your story, versus, in my case, my loyalty and responsibility to the people I write about.
You have been writing about the online world for a long time, but a few years ago you were taken to task on Gawker for spending “way, way too much time online” and for your columns on your kids and Facebook. What's the good, the bad and the ugly about the cyberworld, and have your feelings about it changed over the years?
That’s one of the interesting things about the Internet. There’s a huge number of people nattering away about nothing, either because they don’t have anything interesting to say or don’t know how to find something interesting and make it their own. Gawker is an interesting barometer of our culture and where it’s heading. But, people have been saying mean things about me to my face forever.
Has technology helped families or made them even farther apart?
That’s an artificial construct, like saying, “Has having a toaster brought families together?” Technology brings us tools we can use in our lives. It has nothing to do with relationships. Relationships and the way you interact with people is one thing and the gadgetry you use is totally different. What comes first, technology of the tendency to overuse? For people who “overuse” technology or texting, are these people who wouldn’t have trouble in their relationships, in their lives?
You collaborated with your husband for a few books. Is it hard to work and live with someone day in and day out?
That’s another great luxury that we have. We have the same work and understand each other’s work. He’s often my first editor. I’ve always loved that aspect of our lives. We met at Newsday and we worked together and commuted together. The bigger challenge for me was when he left Newsday and went to Time magazine and he was gone for long stretches of the day. That’s when I had to teach myself how to cook!
You're both writers. Is that a good thing, or is it competitive at times?
No, and I wonder why not. First we covered different things and then we had a very collaborative relationship on the books. He’s great about ideas and I’m very organized. Our strengths compliment each other.
How do you manage household chores and your kids' activities?
We both do as little as possible, and for many years we persuaded (our kids) not to do activities. Whoever doesn’t have to start early drops the little one at school, and we kind of figure out who’ll be available around 3. We end to eat out more or take out. For six months, we cleaned our house ourselves in reaction to the economy, and our house was getting dirtier and dirtier. I spoke to a sociologist for a column (“Be a Patriot: Hire a Housekeeper”) who said those who could afford to, should use housecleaners, that it’s the most patriotic thing to do. So, we immediately hired someone and felt patriotic.
When you were researching The Town on Beaver Creek: The Story of a Lost Kentucky Community, you said that you got to know your family better, although that wasn't your focus. How important is it for you to pass on your stories to your daughters, and how do you do that?
In my family, everyone has a different level of interest in the past and in my family. As you get older, you tend to get more of an interest in that. One of the great things about the Internet is that we are creating a much more complete record and we’re leaving it in an accessible place. And, it’s immediate. On the other hand, is that what they want us to know?
You next book is on your family's move from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area and settling into what at first felt like a slightly alien world. What was it like to be the “new mom on the block”?
It was really fun. There’s a big cultural difference between the East Coast and the West Coast. Everyone was so shockingly friendly; I don’t know if it would have been that the opposite way. When you shake up the little things, you shake up the bigger things, too.
What has been the greatest joy in being a parent?
Watching my children grow up into amazingly loving people. I just love having older children. They’re actually people I like. When you have little kids, you never quite believe they’ll grow up. It’s been a delight and a surprise.
New York Times columnist and book author Michelle Slatalla was interviewed by Vicki Larson, Around the Watercooler  contributor. She is a journalist and single mom. She also blogs at The OMG Chronicles .
Want to hear more from successful women writers like Michelle Slatalla about how they balance work and family? Check out our interviews with The Working Gals' Guide to Babyville author Paige Hobey  and Flirting with Forty  author Jane Porter .