We recently sat down with freelance journalist, Gina Piccalo (although it was in different rooms 3000 miles apart over Skype) for WF’s first Podcast interview. So you can listen to the Podcast interview and/or read the text version (with bonus content) below. We hope you enjoy!
Tell us a little about your background and what you have written.
I’ve been in journalism since the early nineties. I started out in TV but always wanted to become a novelist really, so I gravitated towards print journalism. I spent many years traveling around newsrooms in the south, mostly North Carolina and Georgia, and moved out to Los Angeles in the late nineties and worked my way up to become a staffer at the L.A. Times.
I’ve spent the last fifteen years writing—started as a news reporter covering breaking news, covering courts and cops and all that stuff, and then I ended up gravitating towards film and TV, feature writing and culture. And so the bulk of my work that is out there is about Hollywood culture and about filmmaking and the business of entertainment.
I never did write that novel but on Saturday, I will finish a memoir so I’m very excited about that.
Did you purposely go to California to cover Hollywood or did it just evolve?
Actually, I just fell in love with California after visiting a bunch of times, and I had friends out here. I had a vague notion about getting into the film business and I tried for a while and never really got traction. And in desperation, I actually had applied to a subsidiary of the LA Times just to make a living. And then I realized that I really loved journalism and that I was good at it, so it just evolved into the Hollywood stuff.
Kyle R asks: What would you say is your biggest obstacle in life—and how do you deal with it?
My biggest obstacle is probably confidence. I think that a lot of writers probably struggle with this because we are very interior people, and we think about things and overthink a lot. So I would say, as a writer that’s definitely a big obstacle for me. I think half the battle is turning the volume down on the critic in your head that says you aren’t good enough to do it. And I still battle with that every time I sit down to write. But the beauty of journalism, at least from my perspective, you don’t have a lot of time to quibble over word choice, you just have to do it. And I think that’s probably the reason I stuck with writing as long as I did, is because the type of writing I was doing was so deadline focused that I couldn’t be hobbled by my inner critic. For very long anyway.
You mention wanting to be a novelist. Have you given that up or is that still something you want to do?
No, I definitely haven’t given it up. I think I had this memoir that I wanted to get out for twenty-five years … and the last four years I finally buckled down and did. I think the experience of writing such a long form piece has taught me about structure, about voice. And a lot of the hard work getting to the point of writing a novel, I’ve conquered because I know what I’m in for now. And I have ideas that I would like to conquer in novel form. The freedom of it really appeals to me after so many years chained to the facts.
Was your education geared towards a writing career? How important do you think a writing education is for a writer?
I think an education in general, a college education, is a good thing for a writer. I don’t think it is necessary to be a good writer. I do think that reading voraciously is necessary. For me, I was always a voracious reader myself from a very young age and a natural writer as a child. I kept diaries from the time I was seven, and so for me that became a way I translated the world and my experience and became a natural way to cope with a lot of challenges. I think that once I got to college, I was going to try to be a psychologist but I couldn’t pass a statistics class. So the next best thing for me was what I could do easily, which was writing and reading, so I became an english major because I knew I could pass the classes. I think that writing MFA programs—I tried three times to get into grad school and I was never accepted—I think they can offer a tremendous amount, particularly for very young people that need the comradery and haven’t really experienced a lot of life, that need support delving into the psyche that is involved whenever you write about something. I think that it depends on the person. For me, writing groups were never really that helpful. I went to writing conferences but I always found they shook my confidence.
Kyle R asks: What are you most conscious of while writing?
In journalism, I’m most conscious of the facts and making sure my interpretation of the facts is accurate. I’m also, as a journalist, trying to make the facts flow in a narrative style that people can digest quickly. So a lot of journalism is about condensing with style and accuracy.
And as a memoir writer, the experience is different. I’m always checking myself with’is this how I remember it’ or ‘is this an actual fact.’ And if it is how I remember it, why do I remember it that way, and what does that mean for the overall story. I think for the memoir, the reason it took me so long was that I was grappling so hard with trying to shoehorn an entire life into a fitting narrative that was compelling, that moved, that had an overarching theme. So as I’m finishing it now, what I’m most conscious of is does this move the story along, is this feeding the overarching theme? If so, how? If not, I have to cut it. I’m very much in editing mode now trying to condense and keep the book moving.
Kyle R asks: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would that advice be?
I think it would be to give yourself the space to experiment and not judge what you’re writing when you begin. I think that stymies a lot of people. You want so much for the first or five or six pages you write to be perfect and beautiful but that’s never how it is. So you have to go through that really uncomfortable phase of just trusting and just starting. And so, I think that the biggest advice is just write. Just start and don’t judge it. The beginning phases are about getting it down—getting the raw material down that you can then shape and mold into a story or into whatever form you’re trying to make. If you don’t ever start, and if you spend so much time rewriting in the initial phases, you’re never going to finish. One thing I did was I did draft after draft after draft. And every time I finished a whole draft, I would congratulate myself and celebrate. And then I would start again until I felt like it was finished. And that’s where I’m at now. But I feel like the hardest part is sticking with it, when you feel like all of your writing is crap. I’m a very strong believer in, is it Anne Lamont who says it’s important to have that shitty first draft. It’s really important.
Do you read much, and if so, who are your favorite authors?
I’m actually reading, Karl Ove Knausgård’s, My Struggle. I honestly have not read much of anything that he has written, but I have found his writing so hypnotic. His language is so plain, but his perspective is so … it sort of reminds me of a Virginia Woolfe sort of stream of consciousness kind of writing, that draws you in and before you know it, you’ve read a hundred pages. And you’re inside this person’s day-to-day experience, and although nothing super remarkable happens, it’s the kind of writing that makes you step back and look at life as a form of art. He describes what it is to be a human being—the banality and profundity of everyday life. So he’s somebody that I’ve been really interested in lately.
I’m a big fan of Richard Schwartz, also. I heard him interviewed today about writing, as a matter of fact. He’s just an amazing writer.
I’ve read a lot of memoirs most recently. But I grew up reading a lot of classics. I think Mark Twain is probably my favorite writer and inspired me to be a writer because my dad read Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to me growing up. The fact that he was a journalist was a plus in my book.
Do you have a process for writing, such as set days of the week and daily word counts? If so, please describe it for us.
As a journalist that’s all set up for me. I have a deadline.
As a memoir writer that has been a huge challenge. As a memoir writer without a book deal, without an agent, I was doing this purely on spec. I basically set deadlines for myself. I would say by X date I was going to have X pages. Because otherwise, I just wouldn’t do it. I would set short-term goals, I would set long-term goals. I also took classes that would require me to produce pages. I needed any kind of structure that would help me move forward with this project. I was in a writing group as I mentioned, primarily because I needed the motivation to produce pages. But I was pretty structured about it. I have a little girl and when she was at school, I would just basically say to myself, from the time I dropped her off, to the time I picked her up, I would be writing. I would set those page counts every week that I would have to meet so that I could then meet the deadline I set for myself for the draft I wanted to finish by X date. I tried to go about it as if it were my job, which it was.
What is your ideal writing atmosphere?
I’m one of those people who has to have complete silence. I can’t listen to music. Unless it’s some kind of gardeners in the next half or my dog barking which I can tune out now, I really need complete silence. Even when I worked in a news room, even when I had to write features and long form pieces, I would put ear phones in.
I need my own desk. Actually, I don’t need my own desk. I need a laptop, complete silence, and a room—that’s about it. I say that but I wrote this book in libraries, I wrote it in coffee shops, I wrote it in a corner of my house in the middle of the living room basically. I don’t know if that is typical.
Which author, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
Dead writers — probably Virginia Woolf. She was among the first female writers, aside from Judy Blume and Louisa May Alcott – who inspired me to write what I know. I appreciate Woolf’s ability to find meaning and beauty in the mundane, to bring life to a woman’s inner experience in a wholly modern way.
Living writers I would have to say Mary Karr. Her memoir “Liar’s Club” had a profound affect on me in the late 1990s during a time when I was just beginning to write short stories about my own traumas. She showed me that it was possible not only to overcome enormous childhood wounds to build healthy relationships, but that you could write beautifully and meaningfully about the truth and help save other people in the process.
TKent asks: What is your favorite piece you’ve written and why?
I would say probably one of my favorites is a series of articles, and I don’t even know if they are up online anymore, covering a trial about Botox. Back when Botox had just begun to really take off, a Hollywood socialite here sued a very prominent dermatologist, and one of Michael Jackson’s best friends, for injecting her with Botox and causing fibromyalgia. And that trial became such a circus and was so ridiculous, it was like a reporters dream scenario. The woman who had the fibromyalgia, was very hard to defend. She was a billionaire basically, and the kind of complaints that she had about her health seemed somewhat histrionic. And then there was the dermatologist who was such a character. He wore these Bespoke suits and walked with a cane and was actually quite infirm at the time and in the middle of it, ended up losing control of his bladder walking down the aisle to testify. There was just this parade of bizarreness that that trial created, and it was such great fodder for good storytelling.
TKent asks: You have interviewed lots of celebrities, which was your favorite interview and why?
I enjoyed meeting Angelina Jolie, honestly. I found her very bright and very conscientious. Every time I talk about this and any other actor I interview … you know actors are brilliant, the actors that I’ve talked to were extremely gifted, so it’s hard to know how genuine they really were being. But I got a sense that she was a pretty genuine person. She talked about being a mother and she talked about losing her own mother. I kind of feel like for whatever the criticisms she gets, she’s done a lot of good outside of her career.
I also interviewed Ryan Gosling a long time ago before he was a sex symbol and I found him very charming and likable and very flirty.
I just recently interviewed Albert Brooks. He is a really interesting guy. It was a really good interview. He’s incredibly smart. He’s written a book himself. He’s really had a career that he’s sort of busted a lot of the expectations of him as a young man, and he set out to do what he wanted to do, make his own films, picked the path he wanted to take. I liked him a lot.
How would you describe the perfect interview?
Natural chemistry between interviewer and interviewee has to exist. When that’s there, I’d say the questions come naturally and the experience less a business transaction and more like a really juicy, fun, intellectual conversation with a fascinating new friend. My best interviews take place when I’m extremely prepared and know my subject matter very well. Otherwise you’re just skimming the surface of a person and their knowledge. Also, narcissists make for fascinating interviews.
Do you pitch your article ideas to editors or do they give you a specific topic or a little of both?
These days, I get mostly assignments because I’ve been buried in a book for four years. But traditionally, I have pitched most of my articles because the stories that make me curious ultimately produce the better reads in the end.
Morkanan asks: Writing for Journalism is a mystery to some fiction writers. When you compose your articles, what factors do you focus on in order to communicate what you believe the reader needs to know?
As a journalist, and in news writing, you have to do what they call upside down pyramid structure, where you pack in as much as you can in the first few graphs, to tell people why they absolutely must read further down into the story. Every paragraph in a news story, and in a feature story as well but to a lesser degree, has to be important. It has to be moving that narrative, that initial reason you said you need to read the story. It has to continually carry the reader down because in journalism, you are dealing with very very fleeting attention spans. So I focus on what is the overarching thing of anything that is going on in this story that I want the reader to know first—that’s the first thing I focus on. And then I try to bring in as much color and richness and detail, and just interesting language to keep that reader hooked as they continue to move into the story. Even if the subject matter is boring, I try to make the language interesting, or I like to craft an interesting theme from the reporting, or pull out a quote that’s compelling for some reason, or juxtapose facts in a particular way. The idea is that you are hungry for that reader to continue to read. In journalism the idea is that every second they are going to be pulled away, and you have to keep them looking at your copy.
Morkanan asks: New media journalism is now a huge business, should old media be worried that it will be stamped out entirely?
Old media has been worried at least since I got into the business in 1988 and the big threat then was CNN. That’s part of the nature of we “newsosaurs,” I think. We love to complain.
I think there is always going to be room for the old media paradigm – whether it becomes a sort of Dave Eggers-is McSweeney fetish item like vinyl records have become or whether it is just a sensibility. Daily newspapers landing on your doorstep is probably not going to exist in ten years. Or maybe five. But long form journalism will certainly survive. It just will be delivered in new ways. It already is. I get emailed summaries of long form journalism from the New Yorker, from Narratively, from Flipboard, and then I read the longer pieces I want when I have time. Investigative journalism however is suffering. It has become something that must be funded by philanthropists because it doesn’t get the hits that feed online success. But I am optimistic that the vast resources that have emerged via crowdfunding sites will somehow find their way into journalism.
Morkanan asks: How do you believe the capabilities of e-Journalism, compared to traditional print, have affected your own ability to provide quality articles to your readers?
The motto as a journalist – and probably every other profession in the world now – is : Do more with less. That’s essentially what drove me out of my staff job. We knew back in 2004 that eventually staff writers would have to crank out quality print ‘content’ but also post on social media and broadcast on TV and radio too. It has impaired the ability to really focus on one thing, closely enough to have an informed viewpoint. As a journalist, you often are forced to skim the surface of issues simply because either there isn’t enough time or space or even interest in anything more than headlines and soundbites.
It has also created an enormous amount of noise so the really important pieces get drowned out by whatever the hell Kim Kardashian happens to be doing with her backside.
You’ve been a staff writer for the L.A. Times and The Daily Beast and are now a freelance journalist. What are the pros and cons of being on staff vs. freelance?
That’s a really good question. One that a lot of journalists are dealing with because a lot of journalists that were on staff are getting cut loose and end up being freelance. I think that for me, I’ve always frankly preferred to work independently because I like to make my own schedule. But there are a lot of cons to being a freelancer, chief among them is that you don’t get paid on time, or you get paid a fraction of what you would get paid as a staffer. Nowadays, it is very hard to be on staff at a major publication because the demands are so great. Reporters are required to be on-camera personalities, bloggers, tweeters, and filing dailies and filing longer form pieces. I mean they’re expected to do it all. Whereas ten years ago, you didn’t have to worry about all that social media, and you didn’t have to worry about pitching yourself on television so that people would look at the website, and also grab an article. So I guess for me, I prefer freelance even though the pay isn’t as good, I prefer the freedom, particularly being a working mom. But being on staff really can be very creatively inspiring, there’s a lot of back and forth, you have story meetings all the time, you’re pitching yourself to your editors all the time. There’s a lot of growth that can happen for a writer when they’re on staff. I think of younger writers on staff but even as an older writer if you’re at a good publication and they have quality editors and quality writers you can learn an enormous amount, and your writing can be kicked up to the next level very quickly. I think there are pros and cons to both.
As a freelance journalist, do you have to market yourself and your work?
Yes. I spent a good bit of time and money creating a website that communicates my style and background and interests and I post regularly on Twitter to keep my name out there, or to “stay in the conversation.” Though that has been seriously hampered since I’ve been writing my book..
What marketing techniques have worked best for you?
A really good website is a great tool to declare your seriousness to the world about whatever it is you do. Twitter is vital nowadays. You must be participating as a writer there to be relevant, I think.
What social media channels do you think work best for writers?
Twitter is a good one. Facebook seems less important to me. LinkedIn can help you declare yourself as well. Instagram is apparently quite important as well, but I haven’t found it essential as a writer. If I were on staff somewhere I’d probably post from my assignments on the road as I’ve seen colleagues do, but as a freelancer, I don’t know – I haven’t really gotten into it yet.
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
It’s key to believe in yourself as a writer. Do “The Artists Way.” Listen to the “power of positive thinking” downloads. Post inspiring quotes around your writing area. Set goals and above all else: Don’t. Give. Up. Ninety nine percent of life as a successful writer is simply endurance.
How can readers learn more about you and you work?
My website: Ginapiccalo.com – Everyone is welcome and there is an email link there if you want to speak to me directly.
My Twitter account: @gpiccalo – I tweet all of my articles, and I post them on my website..
You can also type my byline into Google and a lot of it comes up as well. And soon I hope to have a book out.