Making It in L.A.: An Interview with Joe Donnelly

But, there just aren’t enough writers writing and editors editing anymore. His new book, L.A. His profiles and interviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, The Surfer’s Journal, and Mother Jones, among other publications. I’ve also been lucky enough to work for publications that were not starstruck, either. journalism changed since you first started? Perhaps nobody outside of my friends and family has brought more joy into my life than Paul McCartney. Remember that, and go from there. I don’t feel like I actually know this guy. That would sort him out. I’m not sure I know what’s the right way, but the wrong way is to focus on the celebrity part of the equation — unless the phenomenon of celebrity is central to that profile. With a gruff Syracuse accent and a manner to match, Donnelly maintains a role as the perpetual outsider trying to make sense of the weirdness around him. Well, I could have done, and maybe will do someday, a collection of surfing journalism. That Los Angeles is the capital of the 21st century in the United States, the place where the burdens and privileges of the transition from late-stage American capitalism, social and political orders, family structures, and, basically, the question of how we’re going to live together, are being confronted most urgently. I think for the most part, Lou Reed being an obvious exception, I met the subjects in the collection on fairly equal footing as a fellow sentient and vulnerable human being. What is your feeling about this requirement? I’m particularly drawn to Abby Wambach, a fascinating person who is one of the fiercest soccer players I’ve ever seen and who seems to have a complex inner life and story. I don’t know. Who is your dream interview? What’s a truth about this city that outsiders don’t seem to perceive? I think surfing and surf culture can hold a lot of narrative freight in this region. I used to smoke and inhale peanut M&M’s by the bucket and drink coffee by the pot and procrastinate and work into the wee hours and get really unhealthy and strung out and then finish and rest and recover. One could easily do a history of modern Los Angeles through the prism of surf-related pieces, or I could, anyway. For whatever reason, I’ve never been starstruck by stars, though I have been awed by people. That’s just disappeared into the internet ether, to a large degree. Not to mention, some stories need to take flight, but it feels like too often, due to the economic and algorithmic imperatives of the digital era, their wings are being clipped. Los Angeles has been particularly susceptible to these issues — the macro issues buffeting the industry compounded by more than a decade of predatory and carpetbagging ownership of its flagship brands. Yet he knows where all the streets go, and how to soothe a nervous publicist. Well, the digital disruption often seems like destruction. I mean, he’s likely to be governor of the most important state in the world and I want to know more, see more. ¤
TOM ZOELLNER: Your collection aims to tell a story about Los Angeles from multiple perspectives. I mean, do we do editing anymore? JUNE 1, 2018

JOE DONNELLY CLAIMS membership within a specific tribe of Angelenos, and one of the most vibrant: the East Coast immigrant looking to carve a living out of California’s cultural machine. Whether it’s inclusive and expansive or whether it gets swamped by the wave of retrenchment that seems to be overwhelming the country and the world these days. Has their hair ever been seen in the same place at the same time? I keep mixing him up with Justin Trudeau. I tend to believe that if the future can’t make it here, it can’t make it anywhere, and that this L.A. Not long ago, we had two large metropolitan dailies as well as a handful of glossy monthlies that often made space for substantial features alongside the information and service stuff. Man: Profiles from a Big City and a Small World, was released in April. Someone suggested road tripping with the president. Paul McCartney. Why is that? How much does the writer’s own perspective and personality go into a profile? Even if they trafficked in pop culture, they tended to be in on the joke. It’s all going through my filters and my voice, but also, I think through my love of history, context, and subtext, which I humbly submit shows up in just about every piece, whether as seemingly trifling as a “date” with Carmen Electra, or the outsized impact of a wild wolf’s first excursion into California in nearly 100 years. I think, or, rather, I hope that the collection provides something of a document of the times and cultural currents in which the pieces are rooted, one that contributes to or testifies to the fiercely independent West Coast aesthetic. What’s the right way and the wrong way to write a celebrity profile? What I meant is that I don’t care if you’re rich or famous or beautiful. A long drive to Texas with Trump. If I ever knew about the formalism of the genre, I think I’ve long since forgotten it. I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside some great ones, but they are like endangered species these days. He’s one of the most famous people in the world and has been for a very long time, but I still think he’s a bit unknown. Show me who you really are, show me what you have to offer, and let’s start with this conversation we’re having. How has L.A. I hope I avoided those traps. JOE DONNELLY: Well, of course, there’s me, for better or worse. Can you describe your writing process? We’ll see what happens, but the Los Angeles Times, which still has some great journalists doing some great work, moving to El Segundo doesn’t look promising to me. If I can find one, the narrative structure usually takes care of itself. What binds it all together? I’d love the challenge of breaking through that force field he keeps around himself. Also, Gavin Newsom. I think formalism, particularly in writing, can be a fancy way of saying rote or standardized or predictable. Readers can’t help but notice the attention you pay to surfing. I think what I search for, more than a left turn at the end of the second act, or whatever, is an authentic connection to the material and the writing. I’d be down for that. Women’s National Soccer team, circa 1999–2015, arguably the greatest team ever assembled in any sport in any era and still relatively unsung and under-contextualized. He was the co-founder of an exceptionally well-designed long-form magazine called Slake: Los Angeles, now lamentably defunct. You’ve said there is great value in “not caring.” What do you mean by that? experiment is critical to determining what kind of future we are going to have. The formalism of the genre used to demand a pivotal moment where the subject would reveal something vulnerable about themselves. Man, but it’s hard to argue that there are as many opportunities for engaging and compelling narrative journalism these days, particularly in Los Angeles. Who is he, really? I mean, it gets done from time to time, and this city is still full of heroic journalists — I could rattle off 10 of my favorite without thinking too hard — but despite the infinity of the internet, the digital delivery system has actually managed to diminish the carrying capacity for journalism, especially locally. A collaborative effort between the two journalists, and between ProPublica and The Marshall Project. ¤
Tom Zoellner is the Politics Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. If you look at the surf-centric profiles here, and I think there’s really only a few of them, they are really about artists, iconoclasts, or outlaws and some of the foundational aspects of the West Coast aesthetic. For better or worse, or both, I’ve never been much of an outliner. I report the hell out of something and then I torture myself and everyone around me until the piece miraculously gets written. At least enough to be trustworthy and not enough to get in the way. Writers and stories need great editors. No knock on El Segundo, but I’ve seen this show before, when the LA Weekly moved to Culver City, and I don’t think history is judging that decision well. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong for first place, which then deservedly won the Pulitzer, but that story was a miracle. Again, there is still some amazing work out there, but I remember being a judge for the PEN USA literary journalism awards a few years ago and thinking about a lot of the stories, “Wow, so much potential.” But many felt stillborn, not fully realized. We used to have several strong weeklies telling stories that mattered to life in the city and on the streets. Now, I have a family and a day job and my time is hardly ever my own anymore, so it’s getting harder to ride that crazy train, so I’m trying to figure out a more modulated approach. I think, in this case, postmodernism had its benefits. I mean, we did choose “An Incredible Story of Rape” by T. One could argue over the merits of the type of immersive/participatory, voice-driven journalism you see in L.A. I’ve always wanted to do a deep cultural history and profile of the U.S.