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Q&A: Steve Fishman

The Karaoke Nation author on his book, his career in journalism, and not making a million dollars.

- May 16, 2003

Steve Fishman is a freelancer's freelancer. In a magazine culture supersaturated with fame and celebrity, he has managed to have a fruitful career writing smart, evocative, and highly entertaining narratives about people who aren't famous but somehow exemplify interesting aspects of how we live. And while he isn't famous either, his work is inimitable and, invariably, a treat to read; he has written for publications as diverse as New York, Vogue, and the James Truman-era Details.

After dropping out of Brown University in 1976, Fishman started his career as a kind of itinerant newspaperman. Then, after a cerebral hemorrhage at age 28, he wrote the acclaimed book A Bomb in the Brain about the experience. Since then, he's been writing for magazines and wondering how he can make more money. His second book explores the latter interest. Based on an article he wrote for New York about his attempt to become an Internet entrepreneur, Karaoke Nation: Or, How I Spent A Year In Search of Glamour, Fulfillment, And A Million Dollars hit bookstores this week.

After working in newspapers and magazines for more than 20 years, was it a little weird to find yourself writing sentences in this book like "If anyone could be a CEO, then why not me?"
In a certain way it goes to the heart of the journalist's dilemma of feeling like a voyeur. You feel the good aspects, which I did the other day when I was doing a story about an actual CEO—it's like being a CEO by proxy, because his staff recognizes you as an important adjunct to him. But at the same time, you can feel like you're measuring yourself against your subject. You find yourself thinking, Well, what would I do in that position? Wouldn't it be fun to be the one making those decisions, pulling the trigger? I do think that personality-wise I'm more suited to being the one asking the questions and getting the answers, but the idea of the book came at a time when writing features was leaving me feeling like How many more colorful characters can I find?

I sensed that part of your motivation was burnout, or a disillusion of some kind.
It was. Journalism has changed. When I went into journalism, I think the world was defined more largely, and you were encouraged to find avenues into people on the margins, people who don't fit in. If you could get to the marginals and the outlaws, you would learn something about what was really going on. Now, to write about the kind of people who I like to write about—a guy who has a gambling addiction, or a poor guy from Harlem who's a chess champ—it's weird to be a person continually interested in that stuff in a time that's dominated by news of J.Lo and Ben Affleck.

So instead you wanted to see if you could make some real money, huh?
Yeah. And perhaps that was seeded in old attitudes I'd had. Twenty years ago, making money wasn't that interesting. It didn't seem like it was that difficult. Maybe I was being smug, but I always thought that if I put my mind to it, I could do it. And I thought the greatest revenge would be to not only to make a lot of money, but to do it in like 11 weeks.

In the end, you stuck with it for about a year. Was the experience a bit like learning a foreign culture?
I did think it was totally different, and it had its own vocabulary—killer apps and all that—which was kind of fun. But in another other interesting way it was familiar. I did this experiment. I looked at a Brown alumni magazine from the '70s, and I compared it to the one from the '90s. And I particularly examined the class notes, where people write in and say what they're doing now. The business people in the '70s seemed to be doing very boring stuff, like assistant to the director of air-conditioning market sales. But most of the people who I knew were doing things that somehow had to do with, you know, self-expression, creativity, exploring your potential. When I looked at the alumni mag in '90s, I found that all of the values I had were the same values that young people now said they were finding in business. It seemed a remarkable turn of events. Business had become idealistic. People were going into it with the same ideals that had led me away from business. In the '90s, if you wanted to be creative or expressive, if you wanted to find fulfillment, the best thing to do was to start a little business of your own.

Originally, this started as a magazine assignment. Were you thinking from the beginning that it might be a book? Or were you thinking that you really were going to try and make money as an entrepreneur? And in either case, how did you make money along the way?
I would say both. I did do a couple of other magazine stories over the year, so I had some income. I also have a freelancer's instinct for overhead, so I was able to carry myself on less income. I hoped that there would be a book contract out of it, because I felt like this culture I had wandered in was strange and interesting and that there was a lot more to write about it. And I think, finally and sincerely, I really did want to explore this culture for myself. I thought at a certain point that there was a chance I could actually make some money at it.

What did you do in the 20 years before you tried to become a millionaire? Let's take it from the top: What was your first job in journalism and how did you get it?
I dropped out of Brown after my sophomore year, and I got an internship at the Norwich Bulletin, which is a small Connecticut newspaper.

Did you work on Brown's college paper?
I didn't, actually. I went in for an interview for an internship at the Bulletin that was set up by the college, and the managing editor, who was an impressive older figure—he was 28—said to me, "Well, I don't know what to do with you, you don't have any experience. Why don't you sit down and write a story about the interview we just had." So I did, and he hired based on that story. Later, I also did an internship at The Miami Herald and then got hired there. But I had also already applied for this journalism fellowship. My advice to anyone under the age of 28 who does journalism is that they should definitely apply for the Rotary Foundation fellowship for journalists. I went to Africa on it, and when I was there I became a stringer for The Christian Science Monitor, AP, and Newsweek. And then I came back and went to work for UPI. I was there for a year, and then I went to Nicaragua, on another one of these little fellowships. This was the Inter-American Press Association Fellowship. Then my journalistic interest somewhat changed when I had a brain hemorrhage.

Before we go there, let's clarify something: The traditional newspaper route is go to a paper for a few years and then hop to another one. I never heard of such inventive use of fellowships.
The secret is that I did a story for a Rolling Stone college supplement on the greatest fellowships that students can apply for. And I kept one of them out of the story.

Clearly you had certain entrepreneurial instincts when you were in your 20s.
I think all journalists do, actually.

So you had a hemorrhage.
I had a hemorrhage which was caused by an thing called an AVM. It's a blood vessel malformation, like an aneurysm. I made it back to NYU, where I had brain surgery, which was kind of straightforward. But after that, I developed epilepsy, which I had for about 15 years and found not debilitating in terms of my physical output, but it required a lot of coping, and it instilled in me a kind of insecurity about my life and my physical confidence that I was totally unprepared for.

As you recovered, what were you thinking about in terms of your career?
Like a lot journalists, my life sometimes seems to be the best material I have. I can remember from my hospital bed calling my Science Digest editor and telling him what was going on. And his reaction was, 'What a career opportunity!' Which made me feel like, You're a dick, and then, Hmmm, maybe there's something there. So I actually did a story about it, which turned to my first book.

How does someone go from being a person with a few newspaper fellowships, an occasional magazine article, a brain hemorrhage, and an acclaimed book, to a freelance magazine writer with contributing editor contracts at Details and Vogue, as you did in the mid-'90s?
My experience was that writing a book puts you in a different category as a writer. I would send my book to magazine editors, and then I would have a conversation with them, and they seemed very impressed with the fact that there was this book and it had gotten some nice reviews. They never read the book, but just the mere object in front of them was a great incentive to take me seriously. So I think that was part of it. And some of it was the luck that happens. An editor of mine who'd edited a story I did about brain surgery for Rolling Stone became an editor at Details. An editor that I'd had at Health magazine became an editor at Vogue.

Those same editors later helped you at New York and Harper's Bazaar and other places, right?
Absolutely. One truth about magazines and publishing is that people move around—so you expand the number of people you know just by waiting.

Now that you have a new book out—for which you got a healthy advance—do you have a sense of what your next step is?
I kind of remember this feeling after my last book, and I have that feeling now as well: I feel like I've been very isolated in my own world. I've spent about a year writing this, and large parts of it are about me. So one of the things I really want to do—and of course magazines are great for this—is to plunge back into the world and get different takes on things. And start talking to people and hearing other people's stories. So I am looking forward to plunging back in and writing some magazine stories. And then hopefully writing another book, too. Soon, I hope, because the rewards of being a magazine journalist are very specific, and it's a very tough thing to do in the long term. It's a really rough road, and it's much rougher than it used to be. Not only do magazines pay the same—or less—as they did 10 years ago, they take many more rights than they used to take.

By the way, why was karaoke the idea you chose to run with?
Sometimes you have an idea, and sometimes an idea has you. I went to this karaoke bar with a friend of mine who'd just been in Japan for two years. When he left, he was this shy, non-drinker, who would sit by the bar and have a serious conversation. When he came back, he was the life of the party. We went to a karaoke bar, he strutted the length of the bar singing Hava Nagila and Sinatra songs. So I was kind of struck by the transformational powers of karaoke.

Specifically, what is karaoke on the internet? Presumably I would sit at my computer, call up a song, and the words would come across...?
Right, and you would sing into a microphone that plugs into your computer. And then the great internet part of it was that you could record it, and email your version to a friend, the original recording artist, an A&R person, American Idol, whomever.

Do you have a favorite karaoke song? My editor made me ask.
"New York, New York."

Eric Messinger is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, TV Guide, and Parents. You can read a excerpt from Karaoke Nation here, and you can buy it from Photo by Sigrid Estrada.

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