Low Road to the High Glossies: An Interview with Freelance Writer Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles became a successful freelancer magazine writer almost by accident. He had no designs on a journalism career when he started out, but after a lot of hard work, loads of natural talent, and a couple of lucky breaks, Miles’ name has appeared on the pages of the major glossies as well as THE newspaper of record.

Miles, 35, has worked as a contributing editor at Men’s Journal since 2001, where he writes features and book columns. Miles also writes a monthly cooking column for Field and Stream, as well as a column about drinking for The New York Times “Sunday Styles” section. His nonfiction has been published in the 1997, 1999 and 2000 editions of The Best American Sports Writing and he has a piece coming out in the forthcoming 2006 edition of the popular anthology. Miles’ Men’s Journal feature on bar fights appears in the 2005 edition of The Best American Crime Writing anthology.

His work has also been published in GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Salon.com, The Oxford American, Food & Wine, Sports Afield, Outside, and others. According to a self-penned biograpahy Miles sent me, he has covered “preidential politics, barfights, marlin fishing tournaments, music, Third World murder, enviromental crises, combat psychology vis a vie the war in Iraq, the elusive dream of the perfect saloon, and competed in the 6,000-mile Dakar Rally, an auto race through Europe and Africa.”

In the following interview, Miles talks about the magic of Mississippi, the allure and romanticism of newspapering, “finding stories you own”, and how the late, great novelist Larry Brown changed his life.

Tell us about your background — where you grew up and how and when you fell in love with reading and writing?
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio; raised primarily in Phoenix, Arizona; and after running away from home in my teens to play music, and bouncing around a bit, settled in Oxford, Mississippi, which I consider more my home than anywhere else in the world. I landed there in the late ’80s, when Oxford was still a cheap and funky enclave for misfits, drunks, vaguely artistic aspirants, blues travelers, freaks of the highest order. And writers, too, though I didn’t know or care about that at the time. All I cared about was banging away on a guitar and courting New Orleans girls because they ate well and had a high tolerance for alcohol. Which isn’t to suggest that the groundwork for a prose career wasn’t there, or to deny a certain susceptibility: I’d always been a furious reader. At 13 I was busted for shoplifting a Louis L’Amour novel. Before discovering the guitar at 15 I wrote fantasy novels, made-up “true crime” books, that sort of shit. My childhood was basically divided between fishing and roaming the woods and hiding out in my bedroom. Maybe things would’ve turned out differently if I’d had a TV in there, who knows.

But writing fell away until I was about 21, and took a class at Ole Miss from Barry Hannah. (I kind of flirted with college, never graduated, attended intermittently, cherry picked the classes that interested me and ignored all the required crap as best I could. Student loan money was easy to come by back then; it was like this giant credit-card account, and all you had to do to access that dough was take a few classes.) I wrote a short story, “Barry” (whose lit legend I was still ignorant of at the time) heaped some undue praise upon it, and I got it published in a little Oxford alt-weekly. Which led to the giant linchpin moment of my life: The author Larry Brown, who’d just quit the Oxford Fire Department to write full-time, read the story and took me under his wing. He taught me everything I know, to understate. It was an apprenticeship that lasted 12 years, until Larry’s death in 2004. And it was much more than an apprenticeship: Larry was my father in almost every regard save biological. His wife and three children provoked a degree of local confusion by adding my name to his tombstone, but that’s how it was. I have no idea what my life would look like now had Larry not entered it. I’d probably be singing “Mustang Sally” for 50 bucks and free beer in some hotel bar off the interstate. The world lost a serious percentage of its soul when Larry died. I’m still trying to get my breath back.

I think you went to Ole Miss. Did you study journalism there? What kind of things were you were writing at that time?
I’m either proud or embarrassed to say that I never took a journalism class in my life. I fell into journalism by default: Writing nonfiction was a way to get paid to write, and journalism was the most readily-paying form of nonfiction. My first piece of magazine journalism was a profile of the North Mississippi blues scene that appeared in a literary mag called the Oxford American, which was then published in Oxford. (It’s since up and moved to Conway, Arkansas.) For a while, in my early 20s, I was a regular contributor to the Oxford American, writing essays, journalism, lit crit, whatnot. Those were the fun times when the magazine was being published out of Marc Smirnoff’s apartment overlooking the town square, and we’d stay up all night drinking and arguing about commas and the New Yorker and Harold Hayes’s old reign at Esquire and Chuck Berry lyrics and whatever else we could find to happily and pretentiously fight about. And then we’d hold the hot-from-the-printer issues of the magazine in our hands like sacred manna before trotting off to a saloon to drown our glee. The Oxford American was my introduction to magazines, my first glossy love.

How did you get your first journalism job? I believe you were a reporter for the Oxford Eagle and later the editor, right? Tell us about your experiences writing for and editing a small town daily newspaper.
I was indeed a $6/hour reporter for the Oxford Eagle, a small circulation afternoon daily, for three years or so, but never the editor or even an editor; in fact, I was fired. I was working as a bartender at a Mexican joint called Nacho Mama’s, but my girlfriend at the time was, I think, less than thrilled to be dating the Guy from Nacho Mama’s, and kinda nudged me into responding to the Eagle‘s help-wanted ad. But that job turned out to be invaluable: Filing 30 inches of copy a day, about school board meetings and rural murders and everything in between, is the best training tack for journalism that I know. You don’t have the time or the opportunity to be magazine-precious, and you quickly learn to appreciate the bald beauty of facts, the heat of deadlines, the cultivation of sources. You don’t understand the power and responsibility of journalism until you’re sitting in a trailer in Yalobusha County, Mississippi while a widow, shrieking with grief, is laying crime-scene photos of her shotgunned husband on the table before you, pleading with you to tell the world what happened, what kind of man he was, what he meant. That’s when you learn the spectacular fucking importance of getting it right.

Naturally I had my share of weird moments, too: writing about bestiality arrests (MAN MOLESTS COW IN COUNTY) and about a young sex-change aspirant who paid his roommate to castrate him on their kitchen counter and then, when complications arose during the amateur operation, had to be airlifted to the Elvis Presley Trauma Center in Memphis (OLE MISS STUDENT HOSPITALIZED AFTER BOTCHED CASTRATION). What got me fired, however, was an obit. When William Faulkner’s former bootlegger died, I wrote in his obit that he’d been Faulkner’s bootlegger. This was no secret; he spoke about it every year at the university’s Faulkner conference. The publisher called me into his office and advised me that the paper was not in the business of printing people’s crimes in their obituaries. I was completely baffled until he pointed out the word “bootlegger”, and my response was unfortunate: “Bootlegging’s not a crime. It’s a service.” That was my last day. After that I was a gardener for a while, but I got fired from that job, too. Self-employment was more or less forced down my gullet.

Jonathan Miles on assignment in the Galapagos for Men’s Journal. Photo by Max Whittaker

The million dollar question: How do you go from writing and editing a small town weekly newspaper to writing for major glossy magazines such as Men’s Journal and Field and Stream and reviews for The New York Times Book Review? Do you have to know somebody, make a contact along the way?
I suspect it’s all in the story. When I was working for the newspaper, I wrote about a legendary bank robber who’d been caught trying to rob a bank in nearby Southaven, Mississippi, and was being held in Oxford by the US marshals there. The guy had this jaw-dropping backstory: He’d once escaped from jail by drinking a glass of water in which a pack of cigarettes had been soaking for two days, which gave him a nicotine attack resembling a heart attack, and when the ambulance taking him from the prison to the hospital arrived he was swiftly whisked away by associates dressed as orderlies. How cool is that? I pitched it to the great Will Blythe, then at Esquire, who bit on it, but after a tangled series of events the piece appeared in GQ. The check for that article was the most money I’d ever seen in my life, up to that point, but I didn’t have a bank account so I couldn’t cash it anywhere. I had to sign it over to Larry. Back then I was living so close to the bone that I didn’t have a phone. I did all my phone reporting from a friend’s house and, surreptitiously, from the Eagle offices. Will Blythe was unpleasantly stunned that I didn’t own a phone. “If you’re thinking of doing this for a living,” he told me, “you ought to think about getting a phone.” It was admittedly golden advice.

That’s the thing about starting out with freelancing, though: You have to find the stories you own. Young unpublished freelancers are perennially puzzled as to why their pitch to write a travel piece about, I don’t know, Tahiti, doesn’t get any traction. Well, shit, because a magazine can send anyone to Tahiti. Dangle first-class tickets and maybe John Updike will take the gig. No, you have to look under the rocks around you to find the stories that no one besides you is pitching. You’ve got to stake your territory, literal or figurative, and mine it for all its worth. Write enough of those pieces, and, yeah, eventually you’ll be en route to Tahiti swigging mini-bottles of rum in business class. For the first few years of my freelancing life, I wrote about Mississippi almost exclusively: front-of-the-book pieces for the New York Times Magazine and Outside, hook-and-bullet essays for Terry McDonnell’s Sports Afield, a chef profile for Food & Wine, a piece about an up-and-coming band called the North Mississippi All Stars for Men’s Journal. It wasn’t a conscious tactic. I was just dipping from the closest well, but its value has become clear in retrospect. Nobody in New York was sniffing around Mississippi.

Connected to the above question, do you have to live in New York City to be a bigshot magazine freelancer?
No and maybe. (Disclosure: I do live in New York now. I have for the last five years.) No, because I think that, early on, it could actually be a hindrance. It’s a difficult place to develop a singular voice, the kind of yawp that can be heard over the roar of the crowd. It’s intensely competitive and often distressingly insular. And it’s so fucking expensive! I can’t imagine trying to cook up a freelance career from scratch with New York City rent hanging over your head every month. That said, I have no idea if I would be making the same living if I hadn’t moved here. I got offered my first annual magazine contract (with Men’s Journal, where I remain on contract) while I was driving the moving truck up north. Would that editor, who knew I was headed his way, have made the same offer had I still been planted in Mississippi? I dunno. I should ask. Living in New York puts you close to the heart of the beast, and I guess there’s something to be said for that proximity. Hence my “maybe” up front. I know some folks who manage to do it tremendously well from points afar but most if not all of them spent some portion of their lives in the city.

Which magazines out there today are your favorites to read and why? Also, tell us about some of your favorite nonfiction writers and magazine writers out there today, and why you like them.
Typically, I try to reserve Tuesday nights for pigging out on magazines. That day’s mail brings the New Yorker and Newsweek, the evening’s starters and my two bedrock favorites: The former for all the obvious reasons, and the latter for the cooling way it makes sense of the world. You can watch cable news for eight hours straight and end up even more clueless about the state of the planet than when you started, it’s all just hell shoveled into a handbasket, variations of When and How will we all Painfully Die, followed by Why Democrats are to Blame, then a Missing White Chick Alert underlined by that polluting newscrawl and wedged in between ads for erectile-dysfunction pills and anti-itch mortgage-rate creams. Newsweek allows me to get my poor head around our earthly mess. Plus, it’s the most frequent place to find David Gates’s byline, which alone is worth a subscription.

As to bylines: Apologies for plugging a pal, but I think Elizabeth Gilbert, seen mostly in GQ, is a total champ. Of late she’s tended toward personal essays, but she’s a supremely thorough and empathetic journalist. A couple years back, I had the unusual opportunity to watch her, a friend, profile someone that I knew well, a Lebanese winemaker, and the result absolutely floored me. She drew him out magnificently, and rendered it all into knee-shaking prose. She has a way of hooking you in, via a deceptively breezy, conversational tone, so that you keep reading and reading until the end. I find myself starting to read so many articles with powerhouse leads and meaty subjects and thinking, Yes, this is going to be good, so good, in fact, that I decide I’m going to deeply read the whole shebang later, so I set it aside and of course never return to it. Liz’s best pieces don’t allow you to do that. Line by line, she just keeps reeling you in.

Off the top of my head, I’ll read anything and everything by C.J. Chivers, James B. Stewart, Bill Vaughn, the Anderson Bros. (Jon Lee and Scott), and William Langewiesche. Any piece of newsprint with Charlie Leduff’s byline on it. Jeffrey Tayler’s travel writing and Walter Kirn’s lit crit. There’s more, of course, but those jump highest to mind.

I thought I read once that you were writing a novel. How is that going and has that always been your ultimate goal?
Um, yeah. I never meant to become the journalist with the novel in the desk drawer but then who does? It’s like that line from Raymond Carver: “You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic.” Lack of time is the main obstacle. I tend to feel like a pinball, getting knocked from one deadline to another. So carving out time — sweet luxurious time — for fiction is a bitch. That said, I’m planning-slash-hoping to loosen up my schedule this fall so that I can finish said novel by year’s end. Fiction is the goal, journalism the job. A terribly common malady. I’m such a fucking clich√©.

Do you ever miss writing for a small town newspaper?
I do miss the feedback. Back in my small town newspapering days I’d clock out and head to my local bar and everyone would be bellied up to the bar reading the paper (it was an afternoon paper). What a sweet thing that was, to see people reading your words, to hear them bitch and moan, to give them the behind-the-scenes bits and the unverifiable gossip. To see and hear your audience, wow. So much magazine writing is playing to an empty room. You work like a plow horse, your words get printed on a half-million or more copies, and then it often just disappears into this national vacuum. Kind of pops like a soap bubble. Yes, you see any letters to the editor, and sometimes do media appearances about what you’ve written, and there are always the offended bloggers, but it’s not the same as seeing your work read by the people for whom you’re writing.

What’s the best advice you can give a journalist who wants to write for magazines but didn’t go to Harvard, Columbia or Yale?
For freelancing, I don’t think it matters one bit. If you can report, and you can make a good sentence, that’s all that matters. Journalism requires an education, yes, by all means to do it well, you’ve got to read everything, you’ve got to write everything, then repeat ad infinitum. In a way, it’s like music. You can go to Julliard, of course, or you can lock yourself in a room for several years with a thousand albums and your instrument. What matters is how you play it, not how you learned it. Larry Brown barely missed flunking high-school English, never went to college, but he produced some of the best Southern lit of the last half-century. School is just school. The work on the page is the only thing that counts.

Do you think you have found your “voice” as a writer and if so, can you talk about that a little?
God no, I hope not. I can’t bear to ever look at anything once it’s published — all I see are the flaws, the ragged edges, the things I wished I’d fought for or worked harder on. This goes for the writing as well as the reporting. Just this morning I saw in an article in the Times about a bait and tackle shop in Manhattan that’s changing its longtime location, this funky old place in Chelsea that I wrote about at some length in a magazine two or three years back. As it turns out, Andy Warhol used to buy fishing line there to use for hanging paintings, and Sid Vicious was once a regular customer. I spent entire days reporting inside that store, I filled notebooks, yet I still somehow missed those two beautiful goddamn morsels. It took the air out of my day. All I could do was go back into my file and add those two stolen details to my original draft. Will anybody ever see it again? Of course not. But I’m still trying to get it all right, for myself if no one else.

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Some onlines stories of Miles’:
Dear Mr. President, Wanna Race?“, Men’s Journal, August 2002
Premium Bass Fishing Program“, Field and Stream
Drinking It In“, New York Times Book Review, September 2005

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Steven Ward is a staff writer at The (Baton Rouge) Advocate and a senior editor at rockcritics.com.