You have passion, you have ideas, all you need now are the guts to go for it! Anthony Bozza, former journalist at Rolling Stone and author of several influential rock autobiographies including “The Life and Times of Eminem”, tells us how he gained success as a writer by finding his voice, following his passion and most importantly trusting his instinct.
Anthony, how did you originally break into music journalism?
My first and only real job was at Rolling Stone magazine where I started as an intern in the now-defunct book publishing division, then I was a research assistant in the library. Yes, Rolling Stone has its own library, which is pretty cool! And finally I was an editorial assistant in the Music Department.
From there, I worked my way into the magazine by volunteering for any unclaimed writing assignments. Whether that meant writing captions, tracking down members of Sly and the Family Stone to talk about “Hot Fun in the Summertime” – not an easy, but definitely rewarding task – or interviewing bands of the week for the Charts page. I then graduated to writing and editing the “Random Notes” pages and finally got my big break writing about a white rapper that I’d been begging my editor to let me cover since the first time I heard him, which was about a year before he was signed by Dr. Dre. His name was Eminem.
What did you do at Rolling Stone to make yourself stand out from other writers?
I’d always tried to bring something new to whatever I did at Rolling Stone magazine. Growing up, I didn’t read the magazine regularly and I hadn’t been to a journalism school, so I think I approached writing for Rolling Stone a bit differently than my peers.
During my tenure as a research assistant I spent more time reading the frail, yellowed, original issues I found encased by plastic in ‘The Vault’ than doing what I should have been doing, such as compiling data for advertising sales representatives.
I wasn’t earning myself any gold stars in the eyes of my boss, the head librarian, but I did get a primary source education in magazine and history of pop culture writing. Rolling Stone really was the institution that started it all, bringing together the rebel energy and idealism of the hippie generation with the idea that politics, music, art, lifestyle and strong opinion should exist within the same pages.
Other magazines like Playboy had done this in a more mainstream way, but none had taken the Rock & Roll, counter-cultural stance at a national level before Rolling Stone. In those issues, the subject matter may have been dated, but the spirit was still inspiring. Reading Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as it originally appeared in those pages was amazing. It was also incredible to read Cameron Crowe chronicling the 70’s, Chuck Eddy’s incendiary pieces from the 80’s, as well as Kurt Loder back when he was still a print journalist – something I hadn’t realized watching him on MTV.
It sounds like you thoroughly researched the magazine and really understood its history and point of view. Tell us how you made your mark on the magazine and what value you added?
When I got the chance to write my first cover story I wanted it to be as exciting as the articles were in the magazine’s hey day. When, as Cameron Crowe depicted in Almost Famous, reporters were in the thick of it. I’m lucky to have landed an assignment that unfolded precisely that way.Robin Boyden
I caught Eminem just at the top of the roller coaster, and we got on well enough for me to be able to report on the real Marshall Mathers, just as he greeted the world. My experience with him was great material, but I still had to put it out there for all to read. I wanted to do it justice and and in doing so, I took a bit of a risk – I turned it in without showing it to a mentor of mine who had up until then, seen everything I’d written for the magazine before I turned it in to my editor.
This mentor helped me get assignments and prepped my writing for publication but as I got more confident I started to realize that a lot of the changes this person was making weren’t so much to suit the magazine’s style because they were tailored to read as if they had written it, not me.
How did you deal with the pressure, especially as this was your first major assignment?
The week I wrote my first cover story was harrowing to say the least. I went right from my time in Detroit in the freezing cold, to covering the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in New York City. That night is a story that deserves its own chapter. In the issue where my first cover story appeared I also wrote an extensive feature on the ceremony as well as Random Notes, meaning that I was responsible for about half of the full length articles in the magazine that issue.Paul Rosenberg Eminem’s Manager, David Saslow from Atlantic Records, Dennis Dennehy Eminem’s publicist and Anthony Bozza
I was scared because it was more pressure than I’d endured and more writing than I’d ever produced for print in so short a time. As nervous as I was, I was also determined to succeed on my own. So rather than show my mentor or anyone else my first cover story, I turned it to the music editor exactly the way I wanted it. And, aside from some minor tweaks, that is exactly the way it was printed. It was a huge success and if I had to choose one moment that made my career, that would be it.
I remember Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner coming out of his office with the issue in his hands and coming up to my desk, saying, “You’re Anthony right? This is the kind of story we need more of. Excellent work.” He said it loud enough for the entire department to hear, which was completely embarrassing but awesome at the same time.
I’ve written in many styles and in many other people’s voices since then, but that moment taught me to never, ever doubt my instincts when it came to writing.
You’re now a very established writer, what has been the most important factor in developing your writing skills?
The most important lesson I learned was finding my own voice. I think it’s the most important facet of any creative art. There are some artists who come out of the gate knowing exactly what they want to do and how they want to do it, but that isn’t typically the case.
Back in school I started to realize that, unlike many of my friends I really liked writing essays and I liked reading whatever was assigned even more. I’d also write for myself, mostly in journals, which piled up as I got older. I still have a few boxes of them and if I ever need to be reminded of the importance of honing your craft, I can open any one of them to any page.
So once you discovered your voice and started developing your writing style, how did you overcome the fear of ridicule, in order to publish your work?
I’ve only taken one creative writing class in my life. It was a continuing education class at New York University. The class I joined was taught by a man who had published a number of paperback mystery novels. I don’t remember the story I wrote but the observations and pointers he and my class mates gave me, as well as the writing shared by my fellow students, obliterated any fear I may have had.
A number of them had been published and although my work was more or less torn apart, I knew that no matter what they thought of it, considering what I thought of their writing, I should have no problem getting published. It made me feel that there must be somewhere out there for everyone in publishing. It was definitely a good exercise to have my work dissected in front of me, in this case, by a room of people I didn’t feel that I had much in common with.Robin Boyden
Tell us about your relationship with your audience and how you interact with them?
The first time I realized that there were people out there really reading what I wrote was when a college student who was doing a paper on my writing, contacted me for an interview. That was special. She sent me a copy of the final result and it was really good – I think she got an A. As someone who truly enjoyed the process of researching and writing papers when I was in school, to see my own writing dissected and discussed in that same forum was fantastic. That definitely changed my perspective on what I do and made me feel like I could be a guide and inspiration, directly, to up and coming writers.
And thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter I’m more in contact with fellow music fans and fans of my writing more than ever and I really enjoy it. Having that kind of conversation with people makes you feel, in a genre which is kind of a ‘solo sport’ like golf, that you’re not just doing it for yourself.
Your work has inspired many emerging writers, how important do you think it is to encourage and motivate others in your field?
Well, last year I started Igniter, a publishing company with Neil Strauss who is author of The Dirt and The Game, as a way for us to champion up-and-coming writers and put out interesting books that we think the publishing industry may have otherwise overlooked. A lot of our ideas and some of our writers even, came to us through interacting as directly as possible with our fans. Both of us feel very strongly that interacting with our fans and listening to their interests is key to what we want to do with the company. So really I mean it, I welcome all correspondence. We writers do like to write emails too, you know!
How important do you think the Internet is in publishing and distributing work?
The web and digital domain are essential to all creative fields at every level and it can’t be underestimated. The pace of creation, the font of information and the exchange of ideas that are now possible thanks to the Internet is nothing short of incredible. As someone who grew up at a time when all of that became a reality in every day life, I feel lucky to have known what it was like before.
There are elements I miss, like having to hang out at record stores or dig for fanzines to find out about an underground band you liked. But overall, the ability to research an interest or discuss an issue at a moment’s notice with someone on the other side of the world is akin to magic. However, I do think that the instant-gratification of the Internet has been detrimental to art forms like music and film as well as to the undervalued virtue of patience.
The Internet accomplished what television started: it has made us all ADD, given us the memory retention of a goldfish. Still, I somehow feel that this was inevitable. I think the Internet is a human-driven evolutionary anomaly on the path the human race has cut for itself to run through time. There is always something lost when a species evolves but I’d like to think that something equally valuable is also gained.
You feel the digital age has affected the process of our evolution, can you explain this further?
There are so many facets to our existence that can be analyzed to gauge the effect of the digital domain but since music is very important to my general well-being I’ll use that as an example.
When I look at a band like Radiohead, who came through the traditional system and released rock records that were always unique yet identifiably rock, before completely leaving that form behind to make cutting edge records that embrace the possibilities of the Internet and digital media in form and content, I think we’ve made progress. They exemplify exactly how it should be done by a band at their level.
For younger bands, the Internet has allowed them to connect with fans all over the world, which in turn allows them to book tours, and become an operational business much sooner than they otherwise would have. All of this means faster change and more of it. The Internet also allows people in creative fields to form collaborations with people half a world away. In music, artists can collaborate on a track without being in the same city. I think that opens everything up to the limits of human imagination, which is exciting.
How has this impacted journalism and the creative writing industry?
In terms of my own field, I think the Internet has made written communication more important than ever. That doesn’t mean that there is more good writing out there necessarily but there is more writing and reading going on. I think writing is a vital form of human communication, one that bridges the old and the new and anything that allows more of that, I see great validity in.
Unlike the immediate gratification of photos or video, writing tells a story the old fashioned way – by engaging the reader’s imagination. It takes the reader on a journey but allows them to fill in their version of the details. Good writing tells you just enough to paint a picture but not enough to leave you with a cut and dried snap shot. And if there is a medium like the Internet to bring that very vital, very rewarding, very human tradition to more people at once, I’m glad. If a medium can bring us all together no matter how far we live apart, then despite its flaws, it’s inherently good.
Anthony’s book Why AC/DC Matters is an analysis of the legendary rock band. Illustration by Robin Boyden
Can you tell us about that final leap of faith when you decided to leave the confines of Rolling Stone Magazine and become a fully fledged author?
After seven years at Rolling Stone I had reached the top of the food chain as far as staff writers went, and realized that I was also at the top of the salary chain. I then realized that I was going to have to make a choice. If I wanted to make more money and get some career insurance – because staff writers are often the first to go when editorial regimes turn over – I was either going to have to focus my efforts towards becoming an editor there or at a competing magazine. If I wanted to expand my horizons as a writer I was going to have to make less money and cut myself loose to freelance.
I wasn’t the greatest at playing office politics so becoming an editor full time, particularly at Rolling Stone, probably wasn’t going to work for me. So I opted for a contributing editor’s contract which would afford me a salary for a year but allow me to work outside of the office where I could pursue other writing opportunities.
I had been angling one for over a year and when it was finally offered it was for much less than what I knew other contributors were making. Contributors who’d achieved equal and in many cases less than I had at the magazine. That came as a huge surprise to me since I had produced well and done whatever else was ever asked of me during my time as a staff writer and associate editor.
What went through your mind and how did you decide what action to take next?
It was a slap in the face but it lit a fire under my ass and reiterated that I could rely on no one else but myself and it gave me something to prove. I thought that maybe I’d made the wrong decision and went on an interview or two for editorial staff jobs at other magazines. But it didn’t feel right, so I relied on what I knew and tried to sell a book.
And I did – it was my first book, ‘Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem’, which sold both in the UK and USA and landed on the New York Times Bestseller List, as well as remaining a top five bestselling book in England for three straight months.
That experience taught me that taking risks I believed in had its advantages. It showed me that you have to do what you feel is right for you, not what is expected of someone in your position. Even if it’s a huge gamble, if you are true to yourself you’ll have no regrets.