7 For Seven: 7 Questions For ... Zach Schonfeld
"If you already know exactly where a story is going before you start reporting, it’s not a very interesting story."
greetings from zach
Every second and fourth Friday of the month, Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven” interviews writers talking about writing. This week’s guest is Zach Schonfeld. Zach is a freelance writer, journalist, and critic based in New York City who primarily covers music and film and contributes to Pitchfork, Paste, Vulture, and many other publications. And Zach wants you to check out … his upcoming 33 ⅓ book about the mysterious and legendary funk album Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth by 24-Carat Black, out this November. Read this interview on your browser.
Tell us: What (all) do you do? Bonus points if you show us how you got to where you are today.
I’m a freelance writer, journalist, and critic who specializes in writing about pop culture. I primarily write about music, film, and media, though I’m pretty versatile—in the past year or so, I’ve also written reported features about COVID testing, Cameo, the ASMR phenomenon, a serial killer’s family, and manufactured scents. I’m also the author of a forthcoming book about 24-Carat Black, a mysterious and underrecognized ’70s funk group whose music has been sampled hundreds of times throughout hip-hop. The book traces the group’s untold story, as well as the story of how the album emerged as an underground classic in the ’90s rap scene. It’s also about how Black musicians have historically been cheated out of fair contracts and publishing royalties, a subject that has finally been getting some renewed media attention in recent weeks. (The book is being published by the 33 ⅓ series in November. The whole project originated with this piece I wrote for Pitchfork in 2018.)
I spent much of my professional career at Newsweek, where I was on staff for five years, mainly as a senior writer covering the culture beat. I wrote tons of features and profiles there; it’s where I developed my reporting skills and figured out how to do the sort of work I want to do. Then, in 2017–2018, Newsweek’s corrupt parent company fell into severe turmoil, which upended a lot of writers’ lives. (The details are so wild I still don’t even know how to sum it all up—there was money laundering, police raids, and a brief period when we thought our magazine would be evicted from its office and/or sold to Steve Bannon.)
In January 2019, I was laid off and found out my 33 ⅓ proposal had been accepted on the same day. I immediately shifted to freelancing full-time (I had already been writing a bit for places like Pitchfork and Stereogum as a side hustle). I’ve been a full-time freelancer ever since then, writing a mix of reviews and features (and, of course, a book). I’ve written for Pitchfork, Paste, Vulture, VICE, TIME, MEL Magazine, and many other places. I also frequently take on non-bylined work (ghostwriting, artist bios, etc) to supplement my income. (If you're looking for a ghostwriter for a project, please get in touch!)
Reported features are my main thing these days. I’m most interested in writing and investigating pop culture mysteries, backstories, curiosities—stories that are more interesting or original than your boilerplate celebrity profile or puff piece. I love stories that surprise me while I’m reporting them.
I’d like to think I’ve amassed a small reputation for writing offbeat features that take readers down some strange pop culture rabbit hole, or solve some mystery they’ve wondered about, or reveal some lingering injustice. I like tracking down eccentric people with untold stories that they’ve been waiting to tell. I’m not a trained historian, but I have a deep interest in history and archives, and I'm fascinated by stories that illuminate some unexplored link between pop culture of the past and present. I'm obsessed with the ways in which cultural products of the past continue to reverberate and reemerge in the present. I think that’s why sampling is such a recurring interest for me. And that’s what my 24-Carat Black book is largely about—it’s an investigation of how one forgotten funk album helped create the sound of hip-hop, via sampling.
What else … I’m 29, I live in Morningside Heights, I have visited the birthplaces of 37 U.S. presidents, my favorite living songwriter is Nick Cave.
Walk us through a typical day.
What I like about freelancing is that there is no typical day. I get to focus on whatever I want, and I get to decide what story ideas to pitch. And if I’m working on a feature (which I often am), it all depends on what stage the story is in—reporting, writing, edits, etc. Plus, it’s hard to predict when an editor might hit me up with an assignment unexpectedly.
I do have general work patterns, though. I’m not much of a morning person. I wake up around 9, “commute” from the bedroom to the living room, check my email, see if there’s anything urgent to be dealt with—did I get edits back, a response to a pitch, etc. I wade through my overnight messages, record my dreams into my dream diary, glance at the morning’s headlines, think about any ideas I want to pitch. These days I spend plenty of time in the morning just mainlining dread as I scroll through Twitter and consume the latest coronavirus news (I often think of this poem about the morning by Molly Brodak).
Mornings are also when I frequently listen to promos of upcoming albums, thinking about which ones I want to review. I receive dozens of album streams a week. It can be tedious to wade through them, but every once in awhile I’ll hear something that really surprises me or captures my interest unexpectedly. (That happened just recently with this new Inventions album.) In the afternoon, I often reward myself by listening to albums that I already know and love.
Afternoon and evening are when I typically focus on the main work of the day—whether it’s doing reporting and research for a feature, writing a review, sending out pitches, etc. I often like to work at cafes in the afternoon, but the pandemic has ended that. Now I’m home all the time. I usually take a break from work to eat dinner with my girlfriend. If I have a deadline looming, I’ll continue working late into the night. If I don’t, I often watch movies at night, either for work or for pleasure.
Describe more about how you work; how do you do what you do?
I try to identify interesting stories or patterns in the culture world—or people who have an interesting or newsworthy story to tell. Then I try to convince editors to let me write those stories.
Pitching is my least favorite part of this job, but it’s a necessary evil. I often feel like the pitch is the first draft of the story—you have to identify the most interesting aspect of a story and explain it succinctly. If I don’t feel motivated writing the pitch, I probably won’t be excited to write the piece. Still, it’s pretty demoralizing to get pitches rejected, no matter how used to it you get. And it’s stressful having to do that daily calculus of “Which editor will like this idea, which editor reliably responds to emails, which publication pays well, when is it reasonable to follow up, etc.”
Story spotting is a skill that took me years to develop. It took me a while to realize that interesting stories don’t just land fully formed on reporters’ desks. For me, the key is to be constantly consuming culture—watching new movies, watching old movies, listening to new albums even when I don’t plan on writing about them, reading books—and to approach all pop culture with an obsessive curiosity. Just constantly asking questions, wondering why things are the way they are. I think that obsessive curiosity is a crucial skill for journalists—the worst writers are always the incurious ones.
I’d like to think that sense of curiosity animates my best work. I love mysteries. I love bringing investigative skills to bear on topics that haven’t been subject to journalistic scrutiny before. A lot of my favorite features I’ve done just originated with some gnawing, unexplained mystery, like Whatever happened to Sufjan Stevens’ 50 states project? Why is Billie Eilish worshipped by ASMR fans? Why does Creedence always get played in movies about the Vietnam War?
I feel enormously lucky and privileged to be able to do this for a living, and given the present state of the industry, I have no idea how long it will last.
What’s your trick for when you’re feeling stuck?
Writing things out of order helps me. If I’m stuck writing the lede, I’ll just start writing a different section instead. I wrote my entire book out of order—I think the introductory chapter was the last thing I wrote.
Additionally, I find that breakthroughs and ideas often occur when I step away from the computer and just go for a walk, or to a concert, or to a movie—well when such things were still possible.
List some of your notable influences, past and present: writers, books, works of art, the pro-union politics of Space Jam, anything and anyone that has inspired you.
I’ll stick to prose writers; otherwise, I wouldn’t know where to begin. My all-time favorite writers are Joan Didion and James Baldwin. Reading them in my early 20s—as well as people like Sarah Vowell, Robert Sullivan, Tony Horwitz—helped me realize that journalism and nonfiction could take forms other than just Stodgy Newspaper Article Written in Stodgy Newspaper Voice. That was a real breakthrough for me.
I don’t read enough fiction these days, but my favorite currently active fiction writer is Juan Gabriel Vásquez. As for criticism, reading Roger Ebert’s work when I was growing up had a big impact on me. His writing introduced me to so many great films and made me realize that art criticism could be a way into writing about and interrogating so many different facets of life. And Ebert taught me the value of clarity, of saying what you mean clearly and directly instead of trying to sound smart.
I started my career during what in retrospect might be described as the “golden age of blogs.” (Running my old college blog, Wesleying, launched my journalism career in a lot of ways.) So the creativity and humor and voiciness of the writing in The Awl, Gawker, Stylus Magazine, The Atlantic Wire (where I briefly worked), The Toast, etc, had a big influence on me. I miss those sites terribly, and the now-quaint experience of visiting a favorite blog’s homepage just to see what’s good.
I’m continually inspired by peers and colleagues in the music journalism world. Since I’ve spent the past year writing a 33 ⅓, I will say I’ve taken influence from great writers who’ve previously written books in the series—including Mark Richardson (author of the Zaireeka book), Michaelangelo Matos (author of the Sign ‘O’ the Times book), my former colleague Paula Mejia (author of the Psychocandy book), and so on.
As for the best article I read recently—I’ve read so much extraordinary reporting on the pandemic and it all blurs together. So I’m going to mention two great articles I read recently that have nothing to do with coronavirus. One is this MEL Magazine investigation into the pro-union politics of Space Jam. Was very jealous of that story, in the best possible way. And the other is Vulture’s recent interview with El-P.
Zach is so great, right? This interview is possible because of subscribers. Thank you for following! Other ways you can support this newsletter: Tip for coffee (so I have fuel to edit everything) and share this dang thing. But the most helpful thing you can do is:
Advice time: What’s a piece of wisdom that you wish you first heard when you were starting out?
1) If you’re a culture writer and you only interview famous and successful artists, your work will be boring. Try to also interview and write about the people who never quite made it. Or who had a brief taste of success once, but now they’re struggling. Talk to outsiders, talk to artists over 80, profile people whose stories aren’t already known.
2) Don’t give up on a story (or give away a story) before you know what it is. If you already know exactly where a story is going before you start reporting, it’s not a very interesting story.
3) Lastly: Don’t put off invoicing. Just deal with the invoice as soon as the piece runs.
“Art”: What the heck is it?
It’s anything that pulls you out of the tedium and meaninglessness of daily life.
BONUS: Cats or dogs?
Dogs! I grew up with dogs and love them. I don’t really understand cats. I’m always like, “Why aren’t you acting more like a dog?”
BONUS BONUS: Pick a piece of writing that you're proud of and walk us through how it was done: How you got the idea, how you confirmed it was going to happen, drafting the piece, editing it, and publishing it?
I’m proud of this feature I wrote for The Ringer about the mystery and lore of Sufjan Stevens’ 50 States project. It’s the most popular thing I’ve written in my full-time freelance life, which seems funny because it had absolutely no news peg. For me, it’s a reminder that great stories can fall into your lap quite unexpectedly; you just need to recognize them.
Here’s how it happened. In June 2019, I was in Michigan, interviewing members of 24-Carat Black for my 33 ⅓. It was my first time in Michigan, and like a millennial cornball, I decided to listen to Sufjan’s Michigan album. I was feeling nostalgic for the mid-2000s. That night I tweeted a joke about how I’d spent years waiting for Sufjan’s 48 other state albums. It wasn’t the most original joke, but it got a lot of likes and satisfied my primal craving for dopamine.
The next day, Sufjan’s ex-publicist replied: “This was mostly my fault, I apologize.” I was intrigued. I DMed him from the airport and asked what he meant. He started spilling these great stories about how he had helped mastermind the 50 States concept and it was a joke all along—Sufjan never intended to do 50 albums. I asked if he would discuss this on the record, and he agreed.
I spent a couple of weeks interviewing Sufjan’s former bandmates, associates, and fans, trying to piece together the untold story of the 50 States project, its origin story, and its cultural impact. They all had excellent stories about the craziness of the 50 States phenomenon. (Sufjan declined to talk.) I pitched it to The Ringer because I’d just done this long feature about Vampire’s Kiss for them and was very happy with how well they’d edited and promoted it (not to mention good pay). Fortunately, the editor said yes.
I wrote a big chunk of the piece in one frenzied all-nighter. The editing process went smoothly, as far as I can recall. When it was published, I was surprised and delighted by the intensity of people’s interest. For weeks, my inbox and mentions were full of fans sharing stories about their own personal connection to the 50 States project. Can confirm that being swarmed by excited Sufjan fans is much more pleasant than being swarmed by angry Trump fans.
BONUS BONUS BONUS: Music time! What are you listening to these days?
I’m reviewing new albums by Washed Out and Sneaks, so I’ve been spending lots of time with both artists’ discographies. Other new releases on frequent rotation in my apartment: Sucker’s Lunch by Madeline Kenney, Dollar Hits by John Vanderslice, Continuous Portrait by Inventions, RTJ4 by Run the Jewels. I’ve also been going through a big Kate Bush phase. I’ve been going through a Kate Bush phase since 2011, to be honest, but I bought The Dreaming on vinyl in May and it’s been a constant quarantine companion. I am just obsessed with that album’s deranged energy.
Photo credit: Zach Schonfeld