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So What Do You Do, Neil Strauss?
The former New York Times music critic on breaking with the Gray Lady, ghostwriting memoirs, and interviewing porn stars.- August 17, 2004
Media gossip emanating from the New York Times headquarters on 43rd Street is always bound to set tongues wagging, but the only news this year to set other body parts wagging (fingers, we mean!) was the news that pop music critic Neil Strauss was leaving to ghostwrite adult-film star Jenna Jameson's memoir, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. Strauss maintains that it was his decision to leave, but fellow journos had a hard time believing that the famously staid Gray Lady would tolerate such deviant extracurricular activity from its staffers. (One should note that Timesman Strauss did remain fully clothed when he appeared in one of Jameson's films.)
At this point, it doesn't seem to matter which side spurred on the career change: Strauss' new gig as a raconteur of the celebrity dispossessed seems to suit him well. Strauss is writing another book with rocker Dave Navarro that comes out in October, and he previously did ghostwriting duties for Motley Crue's oral history, The Dirt, and Marilyn Manson's autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, both of which landed atop the bestseller list at—where else?—The New York Times. The Jameson book—out today, it's a mix of confessional narratives, diary entries, and interview transcripts interspersed with illustrations of the photographic and graphic (no pun intended) variety—seems poised for similar success. Strauss recently took time out from covering the FujiRock Festival in Japan for an email interview with mediabistro.com about his new gig, his old one, and what constitutes art at The New York Times.
Birthdate: March 15
First section of the Sunday Times: "The Book Review. I read it cover to cover. Oddly enough, it's just about the only section of the Times I've never written for. I even wrote for the Sports section, which I never read."
How did you make the transition from music critic to rock biographer and ghostwriter? And how did this book gig start?
An editor at ReganBooks, Jeremie Ruby-Strauss—no relation—called and asked if I wanted to ghostwrite Marilyn Manson's autobiography. I told him I would, as long as I had the option of taking my name off the book if I didn't like the end result. I thought it would be a good, low-risk way to learn the mechanics of book-writing and publishing. Turns out I liked the end result.
Were the others a chain reaction from there? The people you've written about all seem to run in at least the periphery of the same circles. Was it just word-of-mouth?
Yeah, it's really funny. Everyone's connected. Jenna Jameson dated Marilyn Manson and Tommy Lee, and in the Dave Navarro book that comes out in a couple months, Manson and Tommy Lee also make appearances. The strange thing is that all the books, with the exception of the Dave Navarro one, came about independently of each other. I think, after the final one comes out in October, I'm done with these kinds of books—unless Edwin Edwards, the former governor of Louisiana, wants to do one.
Tell me how the latest book came together. Ghostwriting is sort of a strange, fascinating process. How did you and Jenna get matched up? How much of the book comes almost verbatim from her and how much gets filtered? Take me through the logistics of it.
Judith Regan asked me if I wanted to do it, so I spoke with Jenna on the phone. I wanted to make sure that she was more than just what she did—that even if we subtracted the adult-film element, she'd still have a compelling tale to tell. More than that, I wanted to make sure that she wasn't afraid to tell the complete truth, even if it was possibly going to make her look bad sometimes. And it turned out we were of the same mind about everything.
I just tried to spend as much time with her and in her world as possible. And that means everything from spending weekends going through photo albums and meeting her family to writing films for her with her husband, Jay, to watching photo shoots, interviews, and Internet chats to just hanging out in Vegas or water-skiing on the lake. To write a book for someone who's a complete stranger beforehand, you need to try to absorb every facet of his or her personality. This way, you can tell the stories the way Jenna would tell them, if she were a writer.
You know what's interesting? The average life takes about 17 hours to tell. Every life story I've ever collected has ended up taking up almost the exact amount of tape. It's odd, when you think about it, that in all those years, each of us has only collected less than a day of interesting material.
How did you get her to open up to you? She says she talks about things in this book she's never told anyone.
It just happened in the very first interview we did at her house. She ended up sharing things she'd never told anyone before. When we stopped the tape, we were both totally shaken. She couldn't even sleep that night. The interview sessions were very intense. She had to take a lot of cigarette breaks.
There's a great series of cartoon panels that help the reader navigate industry mainstays, like stripper injuries and suitcase pimps. Whose idea was it to incorporate the graphic element?
The stories in the book were so dark and heavy that I thought it needed a lighter, more fun element. So I talked to Bernard Chang, one of the artists who works on Batman for DC Comics. He had done some animation for a short I co-directed. So I gave him the text for those sections, and he drew the comics.
I hear Pamela Anderson asked her male ghostwriter to wear Lucite high heels to get in touch with the female protagonist of her story. Did Jenna have any similar requests?
Is that true? That's hilarious. I enjoyed writing from that perspective, and told Jenna to tweak anything she wanted if it sounded too "male." Actually, I think it was Jay who wanted to see me in heels.
You've fashioned an interesting new job description for yourself: You give literary cred to those whom the public might see as less than credible. How do you think that affects the audience for these books? You're the perfect cover for the married man who is secretly dying to read the Jameson book: "Well, a Times writer wrote it—"
I prefer to think of the subjects as "interesting," rather than "less than credible"—it just happens that some of the most interesting people exist in the margins of society. I see what you're saying, but that's only going to work to a point. Maybe a married man can say, "Well a Times writer wrote it," and get away with reading her book at the breakfast table, but he probably won't be able to get away with watching her movie and saying, "Well, a fully clothed Times writer is in it." Then again, it depends on the nature of the marriage.
There's so much printed matter about what you've written about other people, and there's not been all that much written about you. But landing a critic post at the Times in your early 20s is something most journalists would bite their leg off to do. Tell me a bit about how you got to where you were, up until March of this year.
I got my start at a small, avant-garde music magazine called Ear. The publisher, Carol Tuynman, and the editor, David Laskin, took me under their wings. They had me reviewing John Cage performances and interviewing LaMonte Young when I was just a teenager. Now that I'm a mature adult, I'm reviewing Britney Spears shows.
I think that one of the reasons I got started so young was because I was a total workaholic. I was willing to write for anyone for little or no compensation. When I was in college, I'd go to the newsstand, and I'd have like five different articles there in various magazines and newspapers. I never told anyone at the magazines how old I was. I'd be editing a story on the hall phone in my dorm, trying to keep everyone around me quiet so that the editor didn't know I was still in school.
My original goal as a writer was to have a weekly column at the Village Voice. The Times was so far beyond what I thought possible. When the job opened up at the Times, people suggested I apply—and I didn't. Jon Pareles, the chief music critic there, ended up calling me anyway. I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time. Actually, I was at the Village Voice, writing for Joe Levy in the music section, as well as fact-checking, copy-editing, and doing whatever I could to cobble a freelance income together.
You've become somewhat infamous for writing these pieces that are so outrageous they almost seem like stunts, but somehow they work as believable journalism: your seven-day/seven-minute interview with the Strokes, climbing into bed with Jewel, being abducted and stabbed with acupuncture needles by Courtney Love. How do you get tangled up in these sorts of things?
You know, I feel like I'm the worst interviewer ever. I leave every interview feeling like I totally let down my editors and my readers. However, when I sit down to write the story, somehow it ends up falling into shape. I think I'm an easy, sincere guy to talk to and be with: I never come into an interview with an agenda. But, more than that, artists are smart and manipulative, and, consciously or not, they know that if they do something outrageous during the interview, it's going to make for a good story.
Also, when I'm writing a profile as opposed to criticism, my role is to be a surrogate for the music fan. The fan wants to get as close as possible to the person and the psyche of the artist, so my role is to do that for them. And if that means having a sleepover with Jewel....
Is there a conscious, stylistic effort to put yourself in the story or does it just happen and you have to go with it?
No, I actually try not to. I never wanted to be thought of as that guy. Too late, I guess. The problem is that if something interesting happens during the course of the story that involves me, I'm stuck in the first person.
There's been so much controversy surrounding the Times lately. What was it
like working there?
It was my first real job, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I really enjoyed it. There was a certain amount of freedom I'd never had before and probably won't again. If there were artists or critical concepts that I thought were important, no matter how obscure they were, I could write about them for the dress page of the Arts section—and sometimes for the front page of the whole paper. And I really got along with all the music writers and editors there. As for the office politics at the Times, I usually got all my news about the paper from the Observer. I rarely came into the office.
One of this year's buzzes, of course, was the rumor that you were somewhat unceremoniously deposed by the powers that be. You've been quoted as saying that the rumor mill got out of hand after you left. But there was word that you did have a discussion about the freelance clause in your contract. What really happened?
It's interesting to be on the other side of the news, because then you see just how powerful the press can be. It was totally my decision to leave. I'd been considering it for over a year. It's a very daunting thing to leave the Times when it's the very pinnacle of your profession. But because I've always been a workaholic, I did have a discussion there about freelancing. Basically, the culture editor at the time established a new policy in which he wanted me and the other music writers to clear any outside work with our editors first. And after that discussion, I did so. Probably feeling like things were getting more restrictive there was one of the reasons I gave my notice. The main reason I left was because I had four books due within the next year. And there was no way I could do everything and still have time to surf.
Why do you think they had a problem with you working with Jenna Jameson,
but not with Motley Crue or Marilyn Manson or Dave Navarro?
Being a family newspaper, The New York Times probably doesn't view fucking as an art.
What are you working on now?
I still write about music for Rolling Stone and the Times. And I'm also working on my memoir. It will be titled: Tales of a Ghostwriter, by Neil Strauss with Neil Strauss.
Jill Singer is the deputy editor of mediabistro.com. You can buy How to Make Love Like a Porn Star at Amazon.com.
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