Thursday, January 29, 2009
Spotlight Interview: Nelson George
Nelson George, Writer, Author, Screenwriter, Filmmaker, Historian
One of the great chroniclers of African-American life in the past two decades, Nelson George has done it all. He’s been a journalist, screenwriter, historian, filmmaker, and novelist. The New York Times Book Review once said of him: “As a critic, Mr. George is an intelligent informed insider; as a storyteller he presents fascinating characters.”
He’s authored several influential books, including: “The Michael Jackson Story,” which made the New York Times paperback bestseller list; “Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise & Fall of the Motown Sound,” which won the ASCAP Deems Taylor award; “The Death of Rhythm & Blues,” which won the ASCAP Deems Taylor award and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award; “Elevating the Game: The History and Aesthetics of Black Men in Basketball,” which won an American Book Award and an Amateur Athletic Association award; “Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Culture;” “Hip Hop America,” which won an American Book award and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award; “Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies.”
He also wrote the highly popular column, “Native Son,” for The Village Voice from the late 1980’s through the early 1990’s; worked for Billboard, Record World, and Playboy; co-wrote the Russell Simmons autobiography “Life and Def;” won a Grammy Award for contributing to the liner notes of James Brown’s boxed set, “Startime;” co-wrote and produced the feature film starring Chris Rock, “CB4;” co-wrote the feature film starring Halle Berry, “Strictly Business;” worked as a consulting producer for HBO’s “The Chris Rock Show;” directed a made-for-TV movie for Black Entertainment Television titled, “One Special Moment,” and was an associate producer for the critically-acclaimed “Just Another Girl on the IRT.”
His short film, “To Be a Black Man,” featuring Samuel L. Jackson, played in film festivals in New York, London and Amsterdam, as has his documentary, “A Great Day in Hip Hop.” Nelson also created the online film project, “Blacker,” a look at racial identity through poetic short films
In recent years, he’s taken his genius to fiction, publishing “Urban Romance,” “Seduced: Life & Times of a One Hit Wonder,” “One Woman Short,” “Show & Tell,” ”Night Work,” and “The Accidental Hunter.”
Here is my exclusive interview with Mr. George:
Mike: What writer influenced you the most growing up?
George: Without question, Ernest Hemingway. Far and away. From the time I read “Our Time” at 14, then later with all his brilliant short stories, which still hold up. He influences me to this day. His purity of prose is amazing. That brevity—I’ve kind of modeled myself after that. I’m not a long-winded writer. I tend to write concisely, picking only the right details. In describing a person, a scene, or articulating an idea, some writers write everything. I’m more like a microscope, going straight to the heart of things. That focus crosses through all my writing, taking the reader straight to what’s most important.
Mike: Do you write easily or are you what they call “a bleeder”?
George: Easy. I can write anywhere and all the time. I carry a notebook or pad everywhere I go, and I’m constantly writing.
My whole theory about people getting blocked: They’re probably thinking about one thing too much and not letting their subconscious mind work for them.
If I’m having problems writing my novel, let’s say, I’ll stop working on that for awhile and go write a journal entry, or go to my blog, or work on a magazine piece. In other words, I never stop writing. I just change what I’m writing.
That’s big, in my opinion: You should never ever stop writing. Once you stop and give into that sense of impotence, you open yourself up to all kinds of bad psychological stuff about sitting down at the table and you’re screwed.
Trust me, if you keep going, keep at some sort of writing, it’ll all come to you.
Mike: So, are you saying that writing has never been painful for you?
George: No, it really never has been. I love writing. In fact, there have been times that I wish I didn’t have to do anything but write.
I don’t know what I’d do without it. I have no idea. I’d be in bad shape. It means that much to me.
Mike: How did you get your start in writing?
George: I worked as an intern for both a black newspaper called the Amsterdam News and Billboard, while I was still in college.
Mike: So I assume you recommend internships.
George: Absolutely. They’re crucial. Basically, at the beginning of your writing career, you need to be willing to be a slave for awhile. You also need to know what it is to be a professional. By the time I graduated college, because of my internships, I had so much experience and all these clips and contacts. It was a great advantage over other writers my age.
Mike: What’s the best strategy for breaking through at the start of a writing career?
George: Find a niche. Become a specialist. For me, I always loved reading the back of record albums as a kid. I wanted to know who produced the album, wrote the songs, things like that—the story behind the album. So I got into both reading and writing record reviews. Then I realized that nobody was writing about the type of music that I was interested in. The popular black music. So I became an expert, reading every book, every magazine and newspaper article, on things like Funk and R&B and Jazz and Blues.
Whatever it is that you have a passion about, hang your hat on that expertise and then later, if you want, expand out of it.
Mike: Did you learn how to write from writing books or some other way?
George: Well, I never read any writing books until recently, when I wanted to know how to do screenplays. I learned by reading great writing, especially literary criticism and music reviews. And later on, when I started working professionally, I learned from good editors. They taught me how to construct them to make them work better.
Mike: Are you good about being edited?
George: Yes, I am. I never had a big ego about that.
Mike: What are your writing habits?
George: I’m a binge writer. I like the feeling of the subject matter building inside me, but without writing. While I’m preparing and researching the story, I’ll think about it wherever I go, whether it’s to the movies or playing basketball or whatever. Then, when my gut tells me I’m ready, when the critical mass of the stuff becomes overwhelming in my head, I’ll attack it. I’ll write intensely, virtually day and night, for three, four straight days. I’ve learned over the years to trust my subconscious. Which means that if I’m thinking about a piece on, say, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, I’ll allow my mind to percolate on it for awhile, to make the connections internally. I might make a note or two, but I wait patiently for the ideas, the major themes, to start coming, before I start writing.
Mike: What do you think about outlining?
George: I’m a big believer in outlines. I outline all my writing, whether it’s a magazine piece, a book, or a screenplay. It keeps you from getting lost, especially with longer writings. I never did the index card thing, but I do it on pieces of paper. In fact, I won’t start something now until I have a good sense of the ending. Because when you’re writing a story, you’re building your case toward whatever particular ending you decide. Going back to the Miles Davis piece, I knew that my ending would have to answer the questions: Did Miles renounce his talent by going electric and plugging in his trumpet? Was that a terrible mistake on his part? Once I had that clear in my head, I was clearer on how to approach that story.
Mike: Do you write only at the computer?
George: No, I write by hand quite a bit. I see the computer as best only for the second draft. I’ve written just one book strictly on a computer, and I didn’t like the result. I read that book now and it reads too fast for me. Like I wrote it too quickly and didn’t think enough about the material. Looking back, I’m convinced I could’ve gotten so much more out of the material if I wrote it first in longhand. The process of going from paper to computer, I believe, slows me down just enough to make the writing better.
Mike: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten about becoming successful?
George: It came from Quincy Jones, while I was interviewing him around 20 years ago about Michael Jackson. I asked him what in his opinion made Michael so successful and he said, “Ass power.” He went on to explain that some singers will come in and give you a little lead vocal, a little background, and then call it a day, while Michael will “sit his ass in the chair” all day in that studio until the work is really done. He’ll knock out the lead and backing vocals, harmonize his backing vocals, and listen to the tracks over and over again trying to make it better and better.
What this all means for anyone looking to become a great artist is this: Do you have the ability to stay there with your art when your friends are out having a good time, going to movies or playing sports or going out drinking? Do you have what it takes to separate you from all the others?
You have to ask yourself those questions, because all great works of art are done inside and often in dark, small, ugly places. Are you willing to put the time in? Are you committed enough? Does it mean that much to you? Do you love your art enough?
Mike: What advice can you offer new writers about query letters?
George: Not much. I only wrote query letters very early in my career and I didn’t get much work, if any, from them. My advice is, develop relationships with editors. That’s more important than merely coming out of the transom.
Mike: What’s harder for you—fiction or nonfiction?
George: Fiction is easier. Not in terms of the writing, but the pure physical work. I’ve done a lot of nonfiction books, and to do a great nonfiction book you need to work so hard. It’s labor-intensive. You’ll have boxes of taped interviews and magazines and newspaper clippings. You’re never quite done with the research. It’s daunting. I know that when I embark on a nonfiction book, I have lots and lots of heavy lifting ahead of me.
In fiction, when you’re stuck, you just make something up. Which is obviously something you can’t do in nonfiction. So I find fiction liberating. It frees me from the burden, the real obligation of a journalist, to be factual.
Mike: Which do you enjoy more—fiction or non-fiction?
George: I’ll always be best known for my non-fiction. That’s how I started my career and it's what made my reputation. Still, my fiction is probably closer to my heart. I write non-fiction with my head, my fiction with my heart. It's an oversimplification but there's a lot of truth in that sentence nonetheless. I’m channeling emotional stuff in my fiction that I wouldn’t be able to mess with in any other way.
Mike: What’s your view of blogging?
George: Well, believe it or not, I had my site for several years before I blogged. For a long time, to be honest, I didn’t really know what a blog was. I’m not even sure I do now, but I know that I enjoy doing it. It’s wonderful fun and has been a great way for me to connect with the readers. I also understand who goes to my site now.
The thing is, I don’t like drivel and I won’t write drivel. If I don’t have something important to say, I don’t write anything.
I began my blog in the fall of 2004, and while I think it’s a great way to spout, and for some writers it can definitely develop a voice, it can also give you bad habits. Especially if that’s all you’re doing. It can be too much haphazard stream of consciousness, writing without discipline. Editing is good for a writer, and with blogging you never get to experience that. Very few writers are brilliant enough to simply write off the top of their heads and dazzle you in a blog.
Mike: Why do you think you made it as a writer, while so many others didn’t?
George: I have an old-fashioned view of that. I believe in corny things such as determination and diligence.
Mike: What was it like doing your “Native Son” column?
George: Well, before I started it, I was a little nervous about doing it. I just felt that it was a lot of writing to do every two weeks. I wasn’t sure if I was that smart to have something to say that often. But my editor gave me some great advice that continues to stick with me. He said, “Describe as much as possible. Use the column as a vehicle to use your descriptive powers. The ideas will come out of it.” And that, I found, worked a great deal for me.
It actually helped me with my fiction later on, and eased the transition from nonfiction to fiction.
Mike: How about your transition to screenwriting?
George: That was the toughest. It took me a long time to write what I considered “good” screenplays. I’ve written screenplays professionally for 10 years, but in only the last three did I think I was any good at it.
The turning point for me was seeing screenplays as something similar to books, structuring scenes like chapters. Like Paul Schrader did so wonderfully with Taxi Driver. Once each scene had a name, I felt so liberated. I began attacking screenplays like any piece of writing.
Mike: What books did you read about screenwriting?
George: I actually read quite a few, but the one that hit me the hardest, the only one I really remember is, William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” Awesome book. A must-read for anyone entering the film business.
Mike: Any last words of advice?
George: Remember that any great artist must live in the world. Make that your calling card and bring whatever expertise you have to your readers.
Please visit Mr. George’s Web site at: