Claire Hoffman rose to prominence while at the Los Angeles Times after an article she wrote on Joe Francis, the impresario behind Girls Gone Wild, was published in 2006. "Baby, Give Me A Kiss" is bold and daring, graphic, and deeply personal in a way not normally seen at the Times. It begins with Francis holding Hoffman's arms behind her back against her will, pushing her face against a car, and yelling wildly. From there the reader is given a first hand tour through the seedy universe of Francis. It became an instant sensation on the internet, amassing more hits than any other article in the Los Angeles Times' history. Since then, Hoffman has waded through the world of polygamist Mormons for Portfolio, spent a night at Amy Winehouse's flat for Rolling Stone, and most recently had soup with Prince for The New Yorker. She is currently a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, and an Assistant Professor of Journalism at UC Riverside. For more info about Hoffman, visit her web site.
The idea for this interview came about after I read a book called The New New Journalism. It consists of detailed interviews with today's top non-fiction narrative writers. From writing habits, to interviewing techniques, to how to find story ideas, the conversations contained a wealth of practical information. What struck me most was that every writer in the book was from an older generation, firmly established in their careers, seemingly protected from the impending death knell of print journalism going on around them. "How would a younger writer respond to similar questions?" I wondered. That's when I decided to contact Hoffman, one of my favorite writers working today. The following conversation took place in November 2008.
Could you talk a bit about your background?
My dad was a writer and he was going to The Writer’s Workshop in Iowa, that’s where I ended up being born. When I was six my parents split up. They were part of a Transcendental Meditation movement. There was a little town in Fairfield, Iowa and the leader of the TM movement asked all these people that practiced Transcendental Meditation to move there, to sort of change the world and have a utopia town. They bought a university there and started an elementary school and a high school. I was there for twelve years, and I left my senior year of high school because I was kind of just freaking out. I went and lived in Los Angeles with my dad and finished high school. Then I went to Santa Cruz.
I was pretty interested in religion just because of my experience growing up, and when I first got to college I was a creative writing major. I really didn’t like my creative writing classes and I don’t think my creative writing teachers liked me. It’s funny thinking about it, that the thing that always rubbed me the wrong way is that they were always telling me to write about myself. Which, in retrospect, I can understand that advice, but at the time it drove me bananas. My dad was a writer and a painter, and my mom was an artist, and I wanted to either major in art or writing, and they were like, “Please don’t do it. We don’t care if you get a tattoo, but please don’t major in that.” So I chose cultural anthropology because it was something unfamiliar. I really loved it, and thought that I would be an anthropologist. I knew I always liked writing, and knew that I was always sort of good at it until I went to journalism school. Professors and people there told me that I knew how to report, but that I was a terrible writer. I was heart broken. But it took me awhile to figure out, which I’m kind of happy about in retrospect.
I got out of college and went to Europe for three months, worked as a waitress, worked at a pot farm in Switzerland, a futon shop in Iowa. Then I moved to New York and worked for a French cosmetics company for three years as a marketing person. I also lived in Williamsburg, by the way [ED- me too]. I went to journalism school when I was 26. When I went to Columbia I got an internship for the whole year at The New York Times in their investigative department. It was really cool and incredibly hard. They tell you that you’re not supposed to work in journalism school because they’re cramming everything into 10 month. So I ended up doing that and working all day on Tuesdays, and trying to take the opportunity to freelance for them. It was stressful, but it was also great. Obviously that internship really helped me. Then I finished Columbia and the investigative department hired me for that whole summer as a freelancer. I had been freelancing little features for the education department. Then I moved to Chicago. I was also enrolled at Columbia to get a master’s in religion, but Chicago has a really great group of people. Everyone thinks that I became a minister or something, and usually people kind of start not swearing around me.
At what point do you think you got comfortable writing about yourself?
Well, that has the assumption that I am comfortable writing about myself. I guess I feel more comfortable than I used to. I think when I first started journalism I really liked the old fashioned investigative reporter idea of how to do stories. I still really admire it. I think what happened was that my first magazine piece, the Joe Francis piece, made it so I had to write about myself. It was really awkward for me on one level, and on another it was just my notes. I had emailed my editor the day after things had gone to shit, and a lot of what I described there is that story. It was hard and not hard. It was embarrassing to be part of it. And magazines now, you can kind of see that it’s a vanity or a conceit to act like you weren’t part of the story.
Did you have any idea when that was going on that it would be the lead of your story?
No. I definitely wasn’t like, “I got my lead. I’m out of here.” I thought it was just the end of the world, to be honest. I felt really confused, and weirdly guilty. I felt really weird that he threw me up against the car. I felt really guilty that I started crying. I don’t know if that makes much sense. It sounds crazy, but I felt like I wasn’t being a professional by being thrown up against a car, and I wasn’t being a professional for crying about it. So I definitely didn’t feel like it was the lead, but my editor was like, “That’s the lead,” and I just had to trust her.
Did you have any expectations for what would happen when it got published?
No, not at all. I had stories on the front page before and people would give you a high five, but that was about the level of expectation. I was freaked out by him [Francis], and he had threatened me. The LA Times moved me out of my apartment into some protective housing. So I was kind of in that realm. I was scared. I left town when it came out. I was more in a world of reacting to what was going on with him.
I remember on a Friday afternoon before it came out, being at my friend’s house in northern California and suddenly stuff just kind of exploded, like with bloggers writing stuff. I had never had bloggers write about anything I had written before, and my mind sort of exploded that day. Who are these people? Why are they talking about me? The flip side is you write about yourself and suddenly they were talking about “you.”
Has that been difficult to get used to?
Yeah. It’s not like it happens all the time. But when it does happen, or when people say shitty things, or even nice things, I tend to feel like they’re not even talking about me. I feel less attached to my name in a weird way.
How did your life change after that article got published?
It was definitely the first thing, and still is, that everyone I knew read. It used to be that I would furtively slip the newspaper underneath my mom or my friend’s eyes and push to try to get somebody to read something I’d written. But that was nice. It made me feel like I was actually doing something that was interesting to people, because certainly the pieces I was writing about striking Northwestern airline pilots weren’t getting people jazzed. After that it did lead to a couple of magazines contacting me and asking me to freelance, which I couldn’t do because I was still at the Times. I think at the time I got a little raise, and if I wasn’t on health insurance I think I got health insurance. It was humble.
It was interesting to read the stuff about you on LA Observed. They made it sound like you were this rock star at the LA Times after that, and there were all these publications trying to lure you away.
Right. As you know, you can write and make it sound like anything, but it mostly stayed the same. Six months later I did end up leaving the Times, but it wasn’t because of that. It was really helpful that I had done that, because it was a more ambitious piece than I was doing on a daily basis, but it was more just because I was feeling like they were laying people off and it was really hard to work in that environment. But yeah, I was not a rock star.
So you wrote that article two years after graduating from Columbia?
Yeah. I went to Columbia, and then went to divinity school and got out in June of 2005 and immediately drove to LA, where I had yet another internship with the LA Times, which was supposed to finish in August, but they kept me, although at an intern’s salary, for six more months. Which was pretty rough. So I worked there as a sort of extended intern. Newspapers seem to like nothing better than to push young people away. That seems to be changing, but they were doing everything they could to discourage me.
And then you went to Portfolio?
Yeah, March of last year.
And you stayed living in LA right? I remember reading some local articles about porn.
Yeah. I had written about the porn business at the LA Times too, so I still knew a lot of people. I did one porn piece for Portfolio.
I noticed that a lot of your articles seem to focus on sex and religion.
Yeah. I didn’t really set out for it to be like that. I was working at the business section of the LA Times and it seemed like nobody was writing about the adult entertainment industry, and it was such a big one. No one was even really interested in it in the newsroom. I have always found it an intriguing business, like most people, and I was covering Hollywood, so it was this nice antidote in that everybody was willing to talk to me. They were all so open, as opposed to writing about Hollywood where everything is off the record and secret and they won’t say anything. So that was really why I started writing about it. If you think about it, there are things between sex and religion that are really similar. I also find personalities that hold sway over people really interesting, and obviously there’s both in religion and in the porn business.
I think that would lead perfectly into some of The New New Journalism questions I was going to ask, like “what kind of subjects are you drawn to?”
I love the idea of people being hypnotized, either by people or by objects, or by love. I love that idea that people fall into a trance and end up doing things that they wouldn’t normally do. You certainly see that in religion when people are affected by charismatic leaders, or they have a conversion and start seeing the world completely differently. Joe Francis is a perfect example of that. He’s getting girls to take off their shirts, when they usually wear shirts.
And then he gives them shirts.
[laughs] Yeah. It’s a complicated shirt paradigm. So I like stories where it seems like people lose them selves and do things they wouldn’t normally do. As a reader, the stories that I always love are crime stories, which usually have an element of that. Just really bizarre things that people end up doing because they owe 20,000 dollars or their jet skis were stolen and they go on a rampage, that kind of stuff.
What are the most important elements you require for a story? Character, narrative?
Yeah, character seems easier to find than narrative. I think everybody’s always looking for a great story. It seems usually you get drawn in by some kind of personality. But it has to be both. You can’t have a really interesting person just sitting there.
How do you find your stories?
I would love to be better at finding stories. I cut things out of the newspaper. I read The New York Times most regularly and I cut little things out of the briefs section. So that’s one way. I also keep in touch with people I’ve written about. My friends suggest things. Editors suggest stories.
How many projects do you work on simultaneously?
It depends. Right now I’m working on five. That’s too many though. I work on too many at once. I’ve actually been trying to change that because I don’t think it’s very efficient.
Is that difficult to manage your time?
Yes. I need help managing my time.
How did the teaching at UC Riverside come about?
I saw the application last year, about two days before the application was due, and turned it in and was so thankful that I got it. I’ve never taught a class before, and kind of came up with some fake syllabi for them to look at. At this point, in terms of magazines, it gives me a lot of stability. It’s a terrible time in magazines right now.
Yeah, that was what I wanted to get to at some point in the interview.
It’s bad, Brian. It’s really bad.
It appears that now is the worst possible time to try to be a magazine writer.
Yeah, it seems really bad, but I don’t know. I feel I’m in this weird position where ever since I’ve been interested in journalism people have been telling me that it will all fall apart. I don’t mean to dismiss that, I’ve had a really fun couple of years, and it seems like I’m consuming a lot of news all the time, so it’s being produced all the time.
Yeah, and it seems like there are a lot of non-fiction books that are doing really well right now.
Yeah, I know people are reading more than ever, and that they’re reading more news than ever. I mean, magazines are a little trickier, but there are magazines that are out there that are totally stable and are a part of people’s lives. But I mean, Portfolio just laid some people off, Radar, etc—that just happened last week.
I heard there’s a hiring freeze at all the publications in New York.
Yeah, I’ve heard stuff like no one’s advertising next year and no one has any money. Business that’s driven by advertising is kind of freaking out right now, and there are so many companies that are driven by advertising. I am not a great business mind, but it does seem that the model is obviously going to have to change. It’s ridiculous that so many people in the world love and trust The New York Times, and yet they’re having this crazy cash flow problem. It shouldn’t be that way. You shouldn’t have everyone sitting on their iphones reading newyorktimes.com and them not making any money. They just have to figure out a way to make money.
So do you attribute this to the internet?
It’s definitely the internet. The thing that I think is interesting is, what happens to local news? If everyone in LA is reading The New York Times, what happens to LA news? Or if they’re all reading The Drudge Report, then who is out there keeping the school system honest, or the court system, or the city council? There was always a dignity and an infrastructure to the way that the old newspaper system worked. It was this ingrained part of people’s lives and they were forced to care. And now it’s like, “Why would you possibly read about the LA city council when you can read about Nicole Richie’s waist size?” It’s not entirely the internet. It’s also this fascination with idiocy and celebrity.
I teach journalism now and I give a news quiz at the beginning of class, and I was pretty surprised at how little they knew in the first weeks. At the end of September, in the middle of the economic collapse, they didn’t know who the treasury secretary was. And that’s the kind of thing where you couldn’t look at the news without knowing his name. But they did know stuff about O.J. I really don’t know the answer, though if I did, I would probably be doing something different.
Do you see yourself as more of an investigative reporter, or a long form narrative journalist?
I like writing. I read a lot. That’s sort of the whole reason that I ended up doing any of this, is that I love reading. It made sense to me to be a writer, though I still don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I certainly feel like, to some degree, I know how to do investigative journalism and I don’t want to stop doing it and suddenly become just a fun feature writer.
Who are some your favorite writers?
I love Lawrence Wright. He was my idol. At the risk of sounding totally pretentious, I’ve been reading a lot of Nabakov. I’ve been trying to read all of him. Last year I vowed to read Shakespeare because I haven’t read anything of his since high school. I sort of have a divide in that when I’m just hanging out I normally read classics. I love Katherine Boo. I think she’s so impressive. As far as reading The New York Times, it seems C.J. Chivers, the guy who’s covering Russia, is just on fire. He wrote a piece called “The School” for Esquire that was amazing. And then David Grann, who wrote this piece called “The Chameleon” for The New Yorker. I was on the plane with my boyfriend and he was completely absorbed in watching “Kung Fu Panda” and I was nudging him the whole time, trying to make him listen to certain sections and he couldn’t care less, but that guy blew my mind. He also wrote a piece before that that I also freaked out about that detailed a post-modern murder.
Yeah, the polish murder. He’s actually my favorite New Yorker writer. Have you read his Squid Hunter article?
No, I’ve been meaning to.
After I read that I went back and read all his stuff in The New Yorker. Pretty much every article he’s written is awesome. He’s going to publish a book soon based on an article called “The Lost City of Z” and it already got optioned by Brad Pitt.
It’s like the dream job. All of his stories seem like treatments for movies. They’re so magical. Those are great stories. “The Chameleon” is a perfect example of both. He’s got such an amazing character who is doing incredible things.
Have you been influenced by any of the new journalists?
I love Hunter S. Thompson. I read his Rum Diary and Hell’s Angels book. I love Joan Didion. With all those people it’s almost like you can’t read them because they’re so powerful.
What kind of stuff is on your syllabus?
I’m teaching an intro class right now. A friend of mine, Amy Wallace, who wrote a piece on Peter Bart that’s awesome and I highly recommend reading if you haven’t, is coming in to talk to the class. I’ve been trying to have them read stuff that’s in their world. I had them read that profile of Tyra Banks that was in The New York Times magazine over the summer.
Oh yeah, the one that had all the crazy photos of her in it.
That’s the one. I’m teaching a literary journalism course in the spring and that’s when I’ll have them read everything.
I had some free time recently and went back and read all the originals and found that almost all roads lead to Joseph Mitchell.
I sent an email out to a bunch of people I know who are journalists, asking them what to read and they all said Joseph Mitchell. I haven’t read anything by him.
There’s a collection of all his New Yorker pieces called Up In The Old Hotel that’s really great. Speaking of that era, do you like Lillian Ross at all?
I love Lillian Ross. When I’m doing profiles I still think about her Hemingway piece. You’re very curious about her, but she’s totally absent. She’s just these wonderful eyes. I’m pretty crazy about her.
I think as far as dialogue goes, she’s the best. I don’t know how she was able to transcribe so much.
Yeah, that’s the question. It was a different era. Gay Talese came into our class at Columbia and said he didn’t think you should use a tape recorder, and you start to wonder when you’re reading these things. It was a different time.
Even with Gay Talese, I don’t know how he’s able to have just chunks and chunks of dialogue.
I just interviewed Prince and he wouldn’t let me use a tape recorder or my notepad. I walked out and sat in my car and wrote for an hour. I don’t have long chunks of dialogue, but I was able to remember stuff.
Do you normally tape?
For the magazine stuff I normally try to tape. You can have longer dialogue, but for newspapers I don’t, just because you don’t have enough time. I’m a pretty fast writer, just from doing newspapers.
Do you have any suggestions for your students?
Ha. Well, you’re getting me at the beginning of my teaching career, so I would almost feel pompous giving advice. Somebody needs to figure out how to write stories and break news on the internet while making money. Maybe The Huffington Post has figured it out and that’s all we need to know.
How much do you tell your subject about a project?
I try to be as straight forward as possible. It makes me feel better and it makes them feel better. People always ask me, “What’s the angle?” and I don’t usually feel like I have an angle. I sort of find out as I go along. I try really hard to not have my mind made up about people before I meet them. Just from experience people tend to surprise you. I feel like it sort of happens as it goes along. I try to say as much as I can. I never tell people about other people I’m interviewing.
So do stories usually change in the reporting?
It does. The parts you know are normally from a clip and you have a sense of the person, but hopefully if they’re worth writing about there’s something more going on. Nothing is worse than writing about somebody that gets written about all the time and there’s nothing new to say.
Do you make an outline before you start writing?
I try to. I should read The New New Journalism book again so I can be reminded of all those life saving techniques. I’ve been outlining more lately. Usually I spend days and days on the lead, and I often end up finishing articles in the middle of the night. The last 2,000 words end up being done in an hour of feverish work. I get very stuck at the beginning usually.
What would your ideal writing day look like?
Waking up, making a few calls. Getting some sort of ideas about what I want to write about, maybe doing an interview and sitting there and writing productively for five or six hours, which is a fantasy. That would be wonderful. It doesn’t usually happen like that. And to be done at five or six o’clock instead of working until the middle of the night, which is what usually happens.