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Life as a Celebrity Journalist

Posted by inkpop on November 19, 2009

Whether she’s talking with Reese Witherspoon about pigpens or Heidi Klum about baby No. 4, USA Today writer Kelley L. Carter takes ‘keep-it-real’ approach

“I write stories about people that everyone wants to know about,” says USA Today celebrity reporter Kelley L. Carter. Based in Los Angeles, Carter takes a modest, very real approach to interviewing the world’s most famous people, including Heidi Klum, Jamie Foxx, and Courteney Cox.

What’s her trade secret? “The trick to covering celebrities is to humanize them as much as possible,” says Carter, who talked on the phone with inkpop the weekend before her coverage of the New Moon premiere.

She’s got her finger on the pulse of Hollywood culture and has instant access to events and personalities that many people dream about, but Carter’s celebrity-journalism career wasn’t something she’d always aspired to attain.

As an ungrad at Michigan State University in the mid-’90s, Carter got a taste for the professional world of journalism while working as an education and crime reporter for her daily campus paper, The State News, in the mid-1990s. Her best friend and S’News co-worker, Jemele Hill (now an ESPN columnist), planted a seed in Carter’s mind to develop an area of expertise. Carter initially selected theater, which evolved into music during her decade tenure as a writer for The Detroit Free Press.

Carter jumped ship to work as an entertainment reporter for The Chicago Tribune until fall 2008, when she accepted her current position at USA Today. “It certainly wasn’t the plan, but I’m glad it worked out this way.”

Carter talks with inkpop about how fiction writing informs her journalism, how to engage Brad Pitt, and about Reese Witherspoon’s down-home attitude …

inkpop: When did you know that you wanted to become a journalist?

Kelley Carter: In fifth grade. That’s when your teachers start asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I didn’t exactly know that I wanted to be a journalist per se, but I knew I wanted to be a writer. My first job was as a movie reviewer for my middle-school newspaper, and I’ve been working for newspapers ever since.

Have you ever written fiction?

I have for personal exercises, but not professionally. As a non-fiction writer, I’ve worked on exercises to fictionalize people’s real lives—I  was trying to improve the way that I include dialog in a narrative. I realized that fiction writers have it on the money. The reason we pore over fiction books is because we love the way that people talk in fiction stories, and I wanted to mimic that in my journalism.

I also took a screenwriting course at University of Michigan, because I love how films paint a picture—I wanted to do the same thing as a journalist. I use some of the tricks I learned in that course in my writing.

Can you give us an example of how you infuse fiction-writing and screenwriting techniques into your journalism?

We have a sensationalized view of who famous people are, and we forget that they’re human, so when I go into an interview, I want to illustrate how they talk. I hate it when someone sounds very robotic in a story—especially when I know how that person really is. I try to bring out casual dialog in my stories.

At the end of the day, I’m really just having a conversation with a celebrity the same way that you would with a friend. I like to disarm people. I think a lot of journalists who are intimidated by their subjects don’t talk to them the same way you talk to everyone else.

I always try to bring my personality to the forefront—which can be challenging when you’re talking to somebody like Brad Pitt. You might be compelled to say, “Brad, it’s awesome that you were nominated for an Oscar nomination for Ben Button. Fill in the blank here with ‘Typical Question That Everyone Else Asks.’”

Instead, ask something like, “What does Zahara think about your accent in Inglourious Basterds, and do your other kids try to imitate it?” You have to engage people in a way that makes them feel a little less onstage. It’s not always a home run, but I try to do this as much as possible.

Do you have an example of an interview that was slow-going at first, but you ramped it up by disarming or engaging the person?

Reese Witherspoon. I found a connection with her in the Southern-girl thing. She’s from Tennessee, and we got to talking about collard greens and sweet potatoes, and that totally took the conversation in a different direction.

The interview was about Four Christmases. Other reporters were doing the “What does Reese Witherspoon really want for Christmas?” angle, but I was the only reporter who got a really good answer from her. And it was because we went on a complete tangent about sloppy hogs and life in the South. She said, “You know what I really want for Christmas? I want a man to build me a pigpen.” It was hilarious, because no one could imagine Jake Gyllenhaal building a pigpen for Reese Witherspoon.

What’s your lifestyle like as a celebrity reporter?

I feel like I never turn it off. The hours are predictable but unpredictable at the same time. Tomorrow is the New Moon premiere, one of the most anticipated films of the year. That’s going to be a really long thing—I have to cover red-carpet arrivals, which means I will check in at 3 p.m., cover arrivals until 7:30, and then high-tail it across town to cover another event, where David and Victoria Beckham will be. I’m covering that live, so I’m writing that story while I’m on the carpet, so that it goes into the paper the next day. And the other event will be something that I’ll file shortly after midnight. That’s a pretty typical day.

But there are some days where I’m just having lunches with publicists or doing interviews with actors or singers. On [November 19], I’m going to have a sit-down with Keri Hilson, and then a planning meeting to have high tea with Julie Andrews in January. It kind of varies every day.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

To read other writers—that’s ultimately how you develop your voice, and that’s what’s going to set you apart from other people in this business. Find a favorite writer—and it doesn’t have to be another journalist. I have favorite journalists, but my favorite writers are novelists.

One of my favorite writers is kind of an obscure novelist—Beverly Jenkins. She writes Harlequin-esque romance novels for African Americas, that are set after slavery and before reconstruction. She really teaches you—she’s a former librarian and researches these obscure, little-known groups of people. She’s so good because she’s well researched and has a solid narrative. Journalists, especially right now, should reach outside the box to find other ways to engage readers.

inkpop Forums topic: Are you an aspiring journalist? How do you view the current and future states of the journalism industry?

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy

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Life as a roadtrip writer

Posted by inkpop on November 12, 2009

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Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein criss-crossed the country for Girldrive

“Let’s go on a road trip! You’re a writer. I’m a photographer. Let’s write a book. Let’s [f-ing] do something!

This slice of a 2006 conversation between then-22-year-old writer Nona Willis Aronowitz and 21-year-old Emma Bee Bernstein launched the start of a life-changing journey.

The two born-and-bred New Yorkers were fresh college graduates curious about American women’s feelings about feminism. Armed with questions about women’s hopes, fears, and ambitions—and how feminism plays a role in women’s lives today—they decided to do whatever it would take to drive across the U.S. in a Chevy Cavalier to find the answers.

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The late Emma Bee Bernstein, and Nona Willis Aronowitz (photo by Lucy Radtke)

What started as a rapid-fire idea actualized itself into a full-color, 221-page book of profiles and photography: Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, released in late October. The duo started by blogging about their trip, which quickly caught the attention of Seal Press, the publisher that offered Aronowitz and Bernstein a publishing contract.

Inspired by their Second Wave feminist mothers, the childhood camp pals hit up major and mid-size cities including Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Provincetown, and interviewed nearly 200 women of varying ages and walks of life. Aronowitz and Bernstein connected with well-known feminists such as Martha Cotera and Andi Zeisler in addition to twentysomething artists, middle-aged moms, punk bartenders, an anarchist midwife, and a burlesque-dancing seamstress.

With a focus on diversity and discussing the connections of race and class in everyday life, there’s not a central overarching theme that answers how American women feel about their lives in terms of feminism. But perhaps that’s the point of Girldrive.

“Some second-wavers think of feminism as a movement; whereas, young women tend to think about feminism as separate issues,” Willis says during her jam-packed book-release party at Brooklyn’s A.I.R. Gallery on October 30.

Though some of the young women featured in Girldrive don’t claim the word “feminist,” you get the sense that their everyday actions are in fact a payoff of feminism’s achievements. As Aronowitz writes, “This half-forgotten history learned from our mothers and mentors does not discourage us; it instead pushes us forward to talk to our generation.”

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Kathleen Hanna photo by Emma Bee Bernstein

Girldrive culminates with a profile of Kathleen Hanna, often considered the leader of modern feminism. One of the founders of the riot grrl movement and the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna is famous for her lyric-turned-battle cry “Revolution grrl-style now.” In 1990, when Newsweek declared feminism dead, she helped to prove to the world that feminism was alive and kicking hard. In the Girldrive interview, Hanna says that despite the triumphant ups and discouraging downs of her radical past, she recommends the learning experiences that come out of standing up for your beliefs.

For all the questions that Girldrive answers, sadly, Bernstein never got to see the final fruits of her labor. In December 2008, she took her own life in Venice, Italy. Aronowitz dedicates the book to her co-author, calling Bernstein her “intellectual soulmate, whose biggest strength and weakness was feeling everything like a stab in the heart.” 

Aronowitz also dedicated the book to another “kick-ass feminist who left the world too early”: her mother, Ellen Willis, a well-known music journalist, whom Aronowitz is writing her next book about.

Watch the Girldrive trailer.

inkpop Forums topic: What does feminism mean to you?

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy

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Life as a Blogger

Posted by inkpop on October 21, 2009

I Heart Daily’s Anne Ichikawa and Melissa Walker [heart] teen trends

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Jewelry to get your geek on. Books you’ll want as friends. Textual harassment. These are just a few of the topics you’ll find on I Heart Daily, a Website and e-newsletter that covers style, entertainment, beauty, and news for teens.

I Heart Daily’s Brooklyn-based bloggers, Anne Ichikawa and Melissa Walker, launched their home-based biz almost a year ago with a straightforward mission: to write about stuff they like. The two met in 2003 while working as writer-editors for the now-defunct ElleGirl Magazine, which they dually describe as “the best jobs they’ve ever had.”

When ElleGirl Magazine folded its print version (the online version’s still kicking) in 2006, Ichikawa went on to work for Flip.com and as a freelance writer for various publications. Walker became a prolific novelist, publishing the Violet triology and Lovestruck Summer.

inkpopAmy: How was I Heart Daily born?

Melissa Walker: We missed writing for ElleGirl, and were always emailing one another and saying things like, “Oh my god, did you see these sneakers?” For a long time, we kept saying, “Why doesn’t Daily Candy have a teen newsletter?” Finally one night, we said, “Dude, let’s do it ourselves.”

What was working for ElleGirl Magazine like?

Walker: It was like putting together a magazine with your friends from college. Of course, there were politics, but in general, we’d walk into our editor’s office and say, “I just heard about this really cool thing,” and she’d say, “Great! Write about it.” There wasn’t a lot of red tape.

What were your favorite stories that you wrote for ElleGirl?

Walker: I wrote a story about Hell Houses, put on by Pentecostal churches at Halloween. I went to a crazy one in Texas, where every room represented a sin—Gay Marriage, Murder, Abortion, etc. At the end, you go into a room where the devil is, and it’s really scary. And then you go into a room with Jesus, who asks you to step into the light and sign your life over to God.

It was a great story because it had all those elements of weird, campy, and quirky, but it also had the deep elements of faith. I loved getting into the minds of the teens of the youth group that put it on. I’m now writing a book that’s fiction, but based on this experience. It’s about a girl who grows up in a town like this, and has always wanted to play “Abortion Girl.”

Anne Ichikawa: I wrote a story about being an extra in a Simple Plan music video. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I flew to L.A., woke up at 5 a.m., and drove to a bridge … and nothing happened all day. As an extra, you just sit and wait. I remembered thinking, “What am I going to write about?” I wrote to Christina [Kelly, the editor], and she said, “This is awesome. Perfect.” I felt a huge sigh of relief, especially since I’d written about the oatmeal I’d eaten and other random stuff.

What are your favorite I Heart Daily posts?

Ichikawa: “Blogs About Books: Re-reading The Classics”  

Walker: “Cool Girl: Lovetta, 15, Inspirational Designer”

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy

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Life as a Rock Writer: Jessica Hopper

Posted by inkpop on October 7, 2009

The Girls’ Guide to Rocking author talks about the hustle and flow of music writing

Jessica Hopper got an early start with her punk education. In tenth grade, she learned to play guitar and launched her fanzine, Hit It or Quit It. Her first band, Plaster, only lasted a summer and “ruined a couple of friendships in the process,” but she went on to play in some 30 bands, including Challenger. But playing guitar and bass comprises only a chunk of her musical résumé; her credits include publicist for the Gossip and At The Drive In, band manager, DJ, and Girls Rock Camp booster.Jessica Hopper

At age 16, Hopper earned her first writing paycheck by reviewing an album for a Minneapolis weekly paper. Now, 16 years later, she makes a living as a freelance writer for Spin, L.A. Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and as a music consultant for This American Life.

A respected journalist and music-industry maven, Hopper is also known for her activist voice. Inspired by her interview with riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna during the first Bikini Kill tour in the early ’90s, Hopper helped to found the Minneapolis chapter of the feminist punk movement. In 2004, her influential Punk Planet magazine essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” was included in DaCapo: Best Music Writing.

Hopper recently toured the U.S. to promote the release of her first book, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking (Workman), a how-to guide covering everything you need to know to become a rock star (or at least sound like one). If you’ve ever thought about playing music but weren’t sure when or whether to get started, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking is “your permission slip,” Hopper writes. “Welcome to the gang.”Girls'GuidetoRockingCover

inkpop: What were you like as a teenager?

Jessica Hopper: Pretty much the same as I am now, but bossier. I was obsessed with music and feminism and had a real sense of “me versus the world.” I spent a lot of time in my room working on [Hit It or Quit It] and playing music by myself. When I was 15, 16, I was such a sponge when it came to music. My whole life revolved around listening to records, going to shows, making a magazine, and working at a record store. My life is pretty much the same way now — between 16 and 32, there has not been a huge jump.

Your musical references are diverse in The Girls’ Guide to Rocking — you mention everyone from Tegan and Sara to Taylor Swift to Nina Simone.

My goal was that for anybody reading the book, there’d be somebody who looks like her, whether she’s Puerto Rican, an indie rocker, gay, or whatever. I didn’t think about playing music myself until I saw examples of myself onstage, and for me that was Babes In Toyland. For other girls, they might see the young Latina girls of Girl In a Coma, and that makes them think, “I can do that, too.”

What were the easiest and most difficult aspects of writing The Girls Guide to Rocking?

The easiest was that I was so excited to do it, because it represents basically everything I’ve learned in my life. The hardest part was explaining ambiguous and complicated ideas in a simple way — they must be understood by a fourth-grader and be interesting to a twelfth-grader.

It was also difficult to get all the information I needed. A lot of female artists’ careers and the kinds of instruments they played aren’t as well documented as their male peers’. The lack of information was frustrating and depressing but drove me to document information about female musicians.

The Girls’ Guide to Rocking has been saluted by Good Morning America, Teen Vogue, and Entertainment Weekly among many other major media outlets. What’s your advice for promoting a book?

Be prepared to hustle. In the case that your book company doesn’t have a super good idea of how to make people care about your book, you’ll have to do a lot of the promotional footwork yourself.

I talked to other authors before my book came out, and they said, “You’re going to have to call everyone you’ve ever worked with in the publishing and media industry,” and it’s true. Come up with a game plan to promote, and do all the little things such as creating a fan page and a good Website. I use Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and a blog.

Make sure that you have a decent email list, and have one at your readings and events so that people can sign up. Research sites and publications to see who’s covering similar topics to what you’re writing about and contact them. You have to know who cares about what you’re doing.

Do you think a lot of writers are scared to get started?

I have just as much a fear of failure as I do of success. Lots of times that keeps me in a space where I have a fear of something totally sucking. You have to get your ideas out of your head and onto paper in whatever way you can.

Sometimes when you put your ideas on paper, you find that all you have is two paragraphs’ worth and not an entire novella. I’ve incubated ideas in my head for years before I did anything about them. In some cases that’s good because it gives me more space to mull over my ideas. I am often my biggest obstacle, a sentiment I often hear from other female musicians who are about my age. Lots of times a lack of self-confidence is the number-one thing that gets in the way. Sometimes we don’t have that bold confidence in us. You have to fake it ’til you make it.

What’s your advice for up-and-coming writers?

Just start writing. Even though at first it can be humiliating to look over copy that you spewed, that’s the nature of creativity. That, and read a lot. Read Joan Didion; she will make everyone a better writer.

inkpop Forums Topic: Jessica Hopper writes about what she knows best: music. What do you know like the back of your hand?

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