7 For Seven: Seven Questions For ... Hazel Cills
"You can not work isolated in this industry, even if that is the romantic idea of a writer."
Every second and fourth Friday of each month, Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven” interviews writers talking about writing. This week’s guest is Hazel Cills. Hazel is the pop culture reporter for Jezebel. Her writing has been published by outlets including The Los Angeles Times, NPR, Pitchfork, The New York Times Magazine, and more. And Hazel wants you to check out … her website. 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 cover pop culture at Jezebel, which is a pretty wide beat: movies, art, music, retail, books, TV, internet oddities, whatever I’m obsessed with and can convince my editors is a worthy story subject. I write a mix of critical essays, reviews, reported features, etc. Every once in a while I'll blog about how I want an asteroid to hit me.
I started writing about all the same subjects I write about now for my personal blog in high school, which turned into a job writing for Tavi Gevinson’s teen website Rookie, where I was a founding staff writer my senior year of high school. In college, where I studied art history, writing for Rookie turned into freelancing for places like Pitchfork, Buzzfeed, Grantland, NYLON, and more. Writing for all of those places turned into a full-time job when I graduated in 2016, working as a music journalist for MTV News, which I left in 2017 to work for Jezebel, where I am today.
Walk us through a typical day.
I sign on to work at 8:30 a.m. and from there it’s different every day. Sometimes I have edits on a piece to work on, sometimes I have an idea for an essay or a blog because of something happening in the news, sometimes I have several interviews throughout the day for a piece that require prep, sometimes I’m just doing hours of research for a longer story, sometimes I have movie and TV screeners and album streams to pay attention to for future story ideas/reviews. I typically sign off around 5 or 5:30.
Describe more about how you work; how do you do what you do?
I need quiet, alone time to write, like anyone, but I don’t really have any elaborate process for how I work. I’ll say that for story ideas, my favorites are basically me chasing an answer to a nagging question I don’t think anyone has answered well enough. Why were all those mainstream teen pop stars wearing purity rings in the early 2000s? How can an art museum exist in 2020? What the fuck is a “boymom?” I really enjoy interviewing people, artists, historians, etc., and becoming, for a brief moment, an expert on a subject for a story. And I love writing stories that are not attached to a traditional culture release cycle since 80% of being a “culture writer" is chained to that.
What’s your trick for when you’re feeling stuck?
I read some of my old writing like a psycho and remind myself that, at least once in my life, I had a good idea and executed it.
List some of your notable influences, past and present: writers, books, works of art, anything and anyone that has inspired you. Also: The best article you read recently?
I’m not sure what my notable influences are, to be honest. Blogs like The Hairpin, Gawker, Jezebel have all influenced me, though I know we’re all tired of romanticizing Gawker and early aughts blog culture. Every writer, editor, illustrator I worked with at Rookie has inspired me. The best article I read recently was Allison P. Davis’s Megan Thee Stallion GQ profile.
Hello! This interview is possible because of subscribers. Thank you for following! Other ways you can support 7 for Seven: 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?
Twitter is not actually important. And join a union immediately, but more on that below.
“Art”: What the heck is it?
BONUS: Cats or dogs?
BONUS BONUS: Money time! What's a specific piece of financial advice that you wish to pass along to a writer just starting out?
I wish I had been more aware of the nitty-gritty details of contract negotiations and salary transparency in this industry, and the power of collective action. I was lucky in that my very first full-time, salaried media job at MTV News was a job where we ultimately formed a union, and I got to experience the process of understanding what a union can do for me, but I wish I had been more aware of my rights and what’s necessary for me to do my job beforehand. Being wary of indemnity clauses that don't protect the writer in the event of a lawsuit, for example. Knowing what “permalance” is and why I shouldn’t have accepted that as a young person still on my parent’s health insurance.
I think when you’re a young writer you’re taught to believe any job is a good job, but in reality, many people in this industry just want to take advantage of your naivety. There is this idea that there is “no money” in journalism, used as an excuse at many companies to deny writers a living wage, but the longer you work in this industry you realize how much money there actually is and how many mind-numbingly boring white men make six-figure salaries. I will say the way people talk about salaries and contracts and media unions have changed rapidly since I started writing, but I wish I knew what makes for a fair contract even earlier.
My specific advice is that I think a union is a necessity if you’re a digital media worker. You can not work isolated in this industry, even if that is the romantic idea of a writer. You need to seek out people who care about worker protections rather than individuals grandstanding online about individually negotiated rates or their #alwaysbehustling mentality. My current contract at G/O Media has built-in cost of living raises and transparent salary minimums at every job title. If you have questions about starting a union at your place of work, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BONUS 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 am proud of this piece I recently published about the stereotype that white women love fall. I just felt like the meme had become solidified in pop culture and I wanted to know why, like where does the stereotype that white women love fall come from, and when did it start? It is an incredibly stupid thing that I wanted to write about in a (hopefully) smart way. It turns out white women’s enthusiasm for fall is way, way bigger than Starbucks PSLs.
I did not write a formal pitch for this piece, I just asked my editors if I could run with it, which is a privilege of being a staff writer at a place for several years. I kept joking about writing it and then finally was like, okay guys, can I just write this already? The majority of the pieces I write at Jezebel are my own ideas that I pitch, and I am in charge of deciding who I reach out to and what research I do, give or take input from my editors. I did a lot of research for this story, lots of book reading and combing through journal articles, as well as talking to some historians about the history of fall food, fall’s place in music and pop culture, etc.
The piece went through two editors, our Features editor and the editor of The Attic, Jezebel’s history vertical where this was published. When I published the piece, some people thought I was further vilifying white women who love fall which is not true, considering I am one of them. But I think enough people understood what I was trying to do!