By Lindsey Wojcik
“It is hard to describe the delirium that accompanied each of those first publications. Each was some great victory and validation. Each felt like, in the words of the poet Charlie Sheen, ‘winning.’ It was as if I was climbing some imaginary mountain face and each published story was a new peak.”
Tom Teicholz nails the emotions that most journalists experience during the first few years of their career in the introduction to his collection of articles, Being There: Journalism 1978–2000. As a law student at Columbia University, Teicholz seemingly stumbled into his first assignment to interview Jerzy Kosinski for a free community newspaper that was distributed in Manhattan’s Upper East Side neighborhood. From there, his connections with editors and writers expanded, and essentially, his journalism career was launched.
Being There features articles with entertainers, literary, and film figures, as well as pieces on President Reagan’s trip to Bitburg, and the first Iraq war—among others. Teicholz recently took some time to talk to me about his writing process, his criteria for selecting which pieces to include in the collection, how journalism has changed since started in the industry, and why writers should “marry well.”
Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?
Tom Teicholz: I’ve always been someone with a great memory who can record and report events, never been shy about expressing my opinion, and always been interested and loved to talking to new people. Starting around fourth grade friends of mine started forming bands and at first, I wrote songs for them. Later (around like sixth grade) having no musical or singing ability, I started to write poems. I had wonderful teachers in ninth grade (Wilson Alling) and in eleventh (Jane Bendetson) who encouraged me, and I went to college writing short stories and with the ambition of writing a novel. While at college, I started writing book reviews, in part because when I read a novel I had opinions and questions I wanted to ask the author, and that pretty much leads to where Being There starts…at the beginning of my career in journalism.
LW: What is your writing process like?
TT: It has evolved over the years—and in some ways remained the same. At first, for the interviews I did in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, it was all about preparing the questions so that the story would have a beginning, middle and end; and then editing the transcripts to maximum effect. When I started writing articles, at first I was just winging it, and they were somewhat more formal than necessary. Over the years, I found a voice (or voices) that I’m most comfortable using. I always try and focus on: What’s interesting about this to me and why should anyone else care? And equally important, or more, is: Tell the facts. When I’m not sure about the former, I do the latter, and once I do, I always figure out what it is I want to say.
LW: What was the drive behind creating the Being There: Journalism 1978-2000? What were you looking for when you were putting it together?
TT: I’ve been living in Los Angeles for 20 years and most of my friends—and readers—know me from my work here, but most of them don’t know all this great work I did at the start of my career when I was living in New York. Also, most of these articles appeared before there was Google, or even the Internet, so I wanted to collect them and put those stories back in circulation—many of which feature artists at the start of their career (Jeff Bridges, Roz Chast, Ian Frazier) or who are no longer living (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jerzy Kosinski, Bill Graham) or have become masters of their craft (Tom McGuane, Cynthia Ozick).
LW: The book features essays about an eclectic mix of subjects ranging from A-list celebrities to politicians. How did you select which essays to include in the book?
TT: My criteria was simple: Does it still hold up? Is it interesting? Are you learning something you otherwise might not know?
LW: Were there any particular subjects featured in the book that you were intimidated by when you first started covering their stories?
TT: Of course! It takes a certain chutzpah to go head-to-head with Nobel Prize-winning authors or do a Paris Review interview with the august Cynthia Ozick, or be Michael Milken’s first interview after his time in prison. Each was intimidating in its own way. Also to write about the testimony of Holocaust survivors, about Treblinka, about Nazi War criminals being brought to justice, was daunting, even overwhelming. But I just kept telling myself that if I could build what I called a “Cathedral of Facts,” I would be okay.
LW: You've picked up some awards over the course of your career. How did the process of putting together this collection of essays allow you to reflect on your career?
TT: It’s funny: Each piece is its own adventure, but then they are published and they fade from one’s consciousness. Pulling all these articles together, re-reading them, and having them stack up into a book was tremendously gratifying. It is the satisfaction of putting (at least the first part of) your house in order. The second part is The Best of Tommywood, which will be published next year.
LW: Journalism has undergone quite the transformation since you first got in the business. What has impacted you the most from that change and how have you adapted?
TT: A combination of the Internet, in all its Shiva-destroyer-of-industries power, the bust-and-booms of the Internet bubbles, and the recession changed everything. At one moment, it seemed like those changes were for the worst: Publications went away and those that remained were paying a fraction of what they did—same for book publishers. And people started saying things like “Content wants to be free.” And there were all these startups—content farms among them, that believed mass producing stories at below minimum wage amounts was “good enough.”
I spent about a year complaining and despairing of being able to make a living writing. Then when the dust settled, a few things became clear. Not all content is created equal. People (and the advertisers and brands who are trying to influence them) want authenticity and they want quality—and that is something that, once again, magazines, book publisher, websites, and brands are willing to pay for. Moreover, one of the things that the Internet leveled was the walls that existed between different types of paid writing—journalism, advertising, publicity, not-for-profits, museums—everyone understands now that you need to make a living. There is no selling out: You are your own brand and you take your integrity with you to each assignment. And as long as you are transparent about any potential conflicts, no one minds. Although it now takes three times as many gigs to make one paycheck from the glory days, that’s okay because today there are more places to write for and places to publish than ever before. There is no piece that you write that you can’t publish—even if you have to publish it yourself. And today, “Content is King.”
LW: You do quite a bit of freelance work. How can young journalists become a successful freelancers in this market?
TT: Same as ever: Write a lot, pitch a lot, hang out a lot, follow up a lot, be opportunistic, entrepreneurial, find a home for your work (even if you have to create it yourself), and let people know about your work.
LW: Where do you think the future of the trade is going?
TT: I can’t say. I don’t know how long-form investigative journalism, particularly foreign stories, will continue to be supported. And if publishers don’t pay writers enough to live on while they are writing a book, that too will have an impact. However, there will always be people who see a story, or have a story to tell, who feel they have no other choice than to tell it on whatever platform in whatever media they can. And writers will continue to have side-gigs, or teaching gigs, or commercial writing gigs to support writing those stories that they would be happy to publish for free (even if they have to).
LW: What's the best advice you've ever received and what advice do you offer up-and-coming journalists?
TT: The best advice I received about freelancing was: Be your own bank. Income as a writer is irregular and the rent is due the first of the month. You have to learn how to finance your writing career via credit lines, savings, etc. You have to live a sustainable life to have a sustainable career.
And the advice that I sometimes give up-and-coming journalists is: Marry well. By that I don’t mean marry for money. What I mean is that the writing life is hard, sometimes lonely, and requires a certain selfishness, as well as moments of grandiosity and self-delusion. You need a great partner to be your support, your inspiration, your motivation, and your reality check. I am fortunate that my wife, Amy Rappeport is mine, and I wish such good fortune on all writers.