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Q&A: John Capouya
An accomplished magazine editor finds yoga—and his inner author.- October 3, 2003
Like most editors, John Capouya is not well known to the general public. There are, however, a legion of writers and reporters at publications like The New York Times and Newsweek who would attest to the high quality of his editorial handiwork. Now readers can see his talents directly: This month, Capouya, who is presently the deputy editor of Smart Money, released his first book, an exercise guide titled Real Men Do Yoga: 21 Star Athletes Reveal Their Secrets For Strength, Flexibility, and Peak Performance. He spoke to mediabistro.com recently about his book, his career, and yoga at the office.
I wanted to begin this interview by saying "namaste." But I have no idea what it means, and whether a real man would say it.
The literal translation from Sanskrit is something like "the sacred in me salutes the sacred in you." But in the context of my book, it could just as well mean "the real man in me salutes the real man in you."
But why bring "realness" into this? Does yoga have an image problem among men?
It was men who invented yoga in India 5,000 years ago. But, obviously, in this country, it was mostly women who got there first, attracted by the physical benefits and, in some cases, the New Age ethos—so many men just assumed it was a women's thing. But that's really changing. There was just a Harris poll that estimated that there are now about 15 million Americans doing yoga and that 3.5 million of them are men. That's about 23 percent.
How long have you yourself been doing yoga, and did the idea for the book come to you in a moment of ecstatic meditation?
I've been practicing about three years, and the book idea occurred to me in two moments. After I took my first few classes, I went to the bookstore to see if I could find a book which would help deepen my practice, because I wasn't really understanding what was going on in class. What I saw in the bookstore was a sea of books with attractive women on the covers, wearing leotards and looking very serenely out into the distance. And having come from a yoga class that included plenty of men and was very rigorous, I just felt like there is nothing here for me. But I wasn't smart enough to immediately seize on the marketing opportunity. It wasn't until later when a friend of mine said, "Why don't you do a book about yoga for men, you're so into it?" I started writing the book about a year and a half ago. Since I have a day job at Smart Money, I'd work on it at night and on the weekends, and it took about eight months.
It must reflect my own stereotypical ideas about yoga that I was quite surprised to read in your book about all the famous athletes who now do it—and even more surprised by the pictures of them in action. Dan Marino does Downward Dog—who knew?
But it makes perfect sense. Who has more at stake in staying healthy than these guys, whose bodies are worth millions of dollars, whose entire careers depend on them being in the best shape possible?
This being mediabistro.com, it might be helpful to some readers to know whether yoga offers any ergonomic benefits.
Speaking as a desk jockey, I think it definitely does. It can help correct imbalances in your musculature and your spinal alignment, which are common problems for those hunched over a computer all day.
What do you do at Smart Money?
I'm in charge of the editorial that we do that isn't about hardcore investing in stocks and bonds. We are a personal-finance magazine and we take that to mean almost anything that shows up on your personal or your family's balance sheet, from travel to credit cards to college tuition, along with real estate and travel.
Since you've worked for a number of prestigious newspapers and magazines, your career path would probably be very instructive to a lot people starting out. So how did you start out?
I graduated from the Columbia j-school in 1981 and then became an editorial assistant at a Sport magazine, which doesn't exist anymore. I was there for about 4 years and I worked my way up to a senior editor position. It was a great experience. There were a lot of talented people there, including David Granger, who is now the editor of Esquire, and David Bauer, who is the number two editor at Sports Illustrated. We had a good time and brought in a lot of good writers.
So right from the start you got on the editing track?
I did, but that was because there wasn't a writing track; it was basically a freelance-written magazine.
Was there ever a point in your career where you detoured into writing?
After my four years at Sport, I left there with a contract to write a certain number of stories a year for them and I did that for two and a half years, mostly writing about pro basketball. I found freelancing enjoyable but a very tough go financially. The clients I was working for seemed to pay as much as any other ones but I still couldn't make a good living. Then I had a chance to edit again. A friend of mine was starting up a regional magazine on Long Island called Long Island Monthly, which doesn't exist anymore either, and I went to work for him, and I've been an editor ever since.
In your experience, what are some of the main differences between being a writer and an editor? And how would you advise someone who is just starting out and torn between which track to pursue?
I think that younger people should try both if they can because its something that you have to experience and I don't know that you'll know the answer until you do. I learned that I seemed to have a knack for editing. I found it very enjoyable to try to assume the voice and the mission of writers and help them along in ways that they seem to find agreeable. At its best, it's a collaboration that benefits everyone, and there is a good deal of satisfaction to be had from the process of making things better. Earlier in my career, I found writing to be an agonizing, nerve-wracking process. I would stay up all night and rewrite endlessly and probably fruitlessly. With the editing, I got to use my intellect but it wasn't so much of a neurotic process.
And how was it writing the book?
It came out very easily and enjoyably, so perhaps I've gotten over whatever it was that made writing such torture. It may be that I don't hold the bar as high as I used to for myself. But I am happy with the situation. However many copies the book sells, I feel like it helped me get my voice back. What you do at a magazine, and what is great about it, is the teamwork. But at some point, if you have any sort of writer in you, you want to do something that is wholly your own. And that's a challenge not only for magazine editors but also for magazine writers who must deal with editors who have their own ideas for how a story should read. So I feel like books are the refuge of the individual voice.
Among the places you've sacrificed your own voice for the greater good are The New York Times and Newsweek. What did you do at those places?
At the Times, I started as an editor in the Sunday Styles section and became the lead editor there. So it was assigning and editing feature stories, overseeing photo and layout, that kind of thing. At Newsweek, I was what they call the lifestyle editor. Which meant I oversaw a wide variety of beats, including television, family life, sports, and health. So one week I'd be editing a television package and then the next week I'd be on a cover story about asthma in childhood. The variety was great. The bad side of that was that so much fell under my collection of rubrics that it felt like I was always doing a cover story on something or other and it was a very demanding job. On the other hand, when you're doing a lot of important stories at a place like Newsweek, you feel a bit like you're helping to clarify public discussion and that is something that can be very gratifying. Plus, the writers were very good, and that really made it a pleasure.
Who were some of those writers?
There was John Leland, who is now at the Times. There was Jerry Adler, a fantastic writer who is still one of Newsweek's stars. I also worked with Rick Marin, who just published a book about his bachelor days called Cad.
Did you make an appearance in the book?
Yeah, I was the voice of reason who would listen to Rick's adventures, shake my head, and sort of try to get him to see that there was another way of doing things.
And presumably you failed?
Once you yourself decided to write a book, how hard was it for you to land an agent and then a publisher?
Finding an agent wasn't a problem. I had a friend who introduced me to his agent, we got together, discussed some ideas, and he agreed to take me on. But my advice to others would be to try to speak to several agents before choosing one. And then go with an agent who is not only competent but also has a style of agenting that suits you. Some agents are hand-holders; others are sharks, focused less on the writer than on the deal. And you've got to make sure you're comfortable with the kind you get. I'm saying this with only the experience of having written one book for one agent, but that is what I gather.
And how was it finding a publisher?
Well, I liked the idea. It seemed like such a no-brainer: Yoga was a big trend among women; now more and more men were doing it, and they were going to need a book. But no one wanted to touch it. I eventually found a very good publisher and it looks like things are working out very well, but there were a lot of rejections.
Who is your publisher?
My publisher is called Health Communications. They're best known for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which has sold about a zillion books, give or take.
So how long will it be until we see Yoga for the Soul?
It's under consideration, as they say.
Between you, me, and everyone else who reads this column, do you ever do some meditation or yoga poses in your office?
I have to say I have done yoga in here a few times. Right now, in fact. There are some poses that you can do when you are sitting down in your chair. There's one that called the Easy Cow Face pose. I can't imagine why anyone would call it that. I didn't include it in my book, and if I did I would have called it something else. It's basically a stretch reaching your arms behind your back—one from above, one from below—and clasping them in the middle between your shoulder blades. Then sometimes I get up and just do some stretching in the office when I feel like I've been in the chair for too long.
This Cow Face thing—do you do it with the door closed?
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