Smash Hits to GQ: Adventures in Magazine Writing

Chris Heath never had any formal journalism training but he has become one of the best and most respected feature writers working in American magazines today.

Heath, 45, was born in the Midlands of England but calls London home today.

One of GQ‘s star writers under editor Jim Nelson, Heath is just as good writing about celebrities as he is covering the lives of everday people who struggle in times of war and natural disaster.

Joe Levy, the editor-in-chief of Blender, worked with Heath at Details and Rolling Stone.

Here is Levy on Heath:

“Chris did for celebrity profiles what Annie Leibovitz did for celebrity portraits -— took something most people treat as a commercial expediency and raised it to a high art form. And he did it the same way Annie did, too: he stuck to his subjects like glue until they gave him what he needed, and he never stopped looking for ways to reinvent a form he had mastered. No writer I’ve ever worked with took preparation more seriously, and his subjects knew it and responded. Also, he usually turned in first drafts that were just slightly shorter than The Great Gatsby.

In the following email interview, Heath talks about the work of his past, what he does now and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.

I know you worked as a pop music journalist at Smash Hits at some point early in your career. But before that, did you write hard news for newspapers? Where and when did you get your start in journalism?

I’ve never worked at a newspaper, or had any formal journalism training. Smash Hits was basically where I started. It might be hard these days for people to imagine, or believe, that a magazine nominally about teen pop could have been such a fortunate place to learn how to become a writer, but it was. In Britain, Smash Hits is remembered largely for its irreverence and humour, but the people who worked there in the mid-’80s were incredibly smart, brave and ambitious about what writing could be, and working there was an amazing, inspirational education. I think when I began there I’d convinced myself it was because I was obsessed with music (which I remain, although I don’t write about it very often) but it was working at Smash Hits which showed me I was really obsessed with stories of all kinds, and how they might be told.

So how did your “on the job” training at Smash Hits prepare you to write about war refugees from Iraq and Hurricane Katrina survivors living on one part of a street in New Orleans?

Well, it was an extremely incomplete preparation, but not, I think, a bad start. It taught me how to ask questions, and how to listen to people -– and how to have faith that, if you do both these things patiently and with genuine interest, then honest and unexpected stories will come to you. I guess what I really think, but which maybe I’m a little nervous about stating, is that, for all the clear and important differences between writing about these recent subjects you’ve mentioned and writing about a pop star, when done well they might not be that different. I hate the idea -– more and more prevalent today -– that there’s a kind of subject, and a kind of a journalism, that matters, and another kind that doesn’t matter.

If someone is going to write about a pop star or a song or even an absurd haircut as if it doesn’t matter, then I’d rather they didn’t bother writing about it all. I always wanted to write about everything as though it mattered, and I’ve always tried to. (To me, by the way, approaching and taking things seriously is a completely different and separate matter from feeling under any obligation to adopt an earnest, po-faced tone.) I sometimes worry that to feel as I do about this may put me at a practical disadvantage -– that it might be tactically beneficial for any writer who wants to be respected and prosper in this era to restrict themselves to supposedly serious and important subjects; to quarantine themselves inside a moat over which the supposedly superficial should never be allowed to cross unless treated in a particular analytical and condescending way — but it’s simply how I feel. The kinds of truths that interest me are scattered high and low and all over the place, and I’m unwilling to restrict my search.

You wrote two books about Pet Shop Boys. Did that happen because you became friendly with Smash Hits contributor and PSB frontman Neil Tennant? Or was it out of pure fandom or something that just occurred to you as an interesting story?

It was a little more, and less, accidental than any of those options. I’d known Neil somewhat as one of my editors at Smash Hits and then, very shortly afterwards, got to know both him and the other Pet Shop Boy, Chris Lowe, better from interviewing them when they first became successful. When they arranged their first brief tour in 1989, they asked me to come along. I think they simply thought it might be interesting, but what I saw was an incredible opportunity to prove whether the kind of almost forensic reportage I was trying to do could work on a much larger scale than in the fairly short articles I’d been able to write until then.

The books that specifically inspired me were two brilliant pieces of documentary — Michael Braun’s Love Me Do!, chronicling the Beatles in 1963 and 1964, and Robert Greenfield’s STP, trailing the Rolling Stones in 1972 –- but theirs was a tradition that seemed to have died out. No one was writing about pop groups in this way, and I felt that there was a kind of documentary process required to capture the pop culture as it actually existed and happened at any given time -– even, at risk of sounding a little pompous, a kind of social anthropology –- that had been forgotten and was being ignored, and which I now had the opportunity to do. But we didn’t really discuss what I was doing — I simply followed the Pet Shop Boys around non-stop with a big notebook for several weeks, went away, wrote the book, and showed it to them.

In those days pop groups were supposed to only allow bland, self-congratulatory, cosmetic portrayals of themselves, and the book I had written, Pet Shop Boys, Literally, was far from that, so I’m forever grateful that they allowed me the opportunity and could see worth in the result. (The second book, Pet Shop Boys Versus America, was conceived more as a photo book, and is centred around a remarkable series of black and white photos taken across America by Pennie Smith, who is perhaps most famous for her work with the Clash. I was originally supposed to be writing extended photo captions but interesting things kept happening and, not for the last time, I wrote rather more than had been anticipated.)

I understand that your approach to a celebrity profile and a newsy investigation is the same — you take both very seriously and why bother writing either unless there’s good story there. So I’m guessing you don’t prefer one to the other, right?

It’s not quite as you said –- that my approach to these two different things is the same –- but rather that I believe that, in their most important aspects, they should be essentially the same thing. Though I’m not so naïve that I don’t realise people could refer to some articles I’ve written in this way, I’d never accept a commission that was presented as “a celebrity profile”. Most writing that interests me –- fiction as well as non-fiction –- is on some level about how people make sense of their lives, and why they do the things that they do… and, often, what happens as things don’t work out as we expect.

I guess if I’ve been interested in sometimes writing about people who have celebrity it’s because, aside from my fascination with creativity and the anxieties and ambitions which tend to surround it, such people can offer a highly-charged shortcut into considering almost anything interesting that humans do. I’ll only write about someone famous if I think there’s a reasonable chance of that happening (usually based on a hunch about them, and crucially upon the circumstances and time I’ll be able to spend with them); I’ve minimal interest in the tittle-tattle and minutiae of celebrity for its own sake.

Likewise, I would undertake what you call a “newsy investigation” for much the same reasons, even if the experience, and result, might seem very different. Those stories are hugely important to me and I’m very proud of the best ones, but it does slightly upset me when they are considered as a completely different kind of creature. Unfortunately, as I suggested above, I think my viewpoint isn’t one that’s widely shared right now, and I know that’s a problem. If everything one writes about someone famous is assumed to be, and dismissed by reflex, as “a celebrity profile” (which I think these days generally implies something superficial and maybe PR-driven and ultimately pointless), then — whatever the nature of the actual words you write — perhaps there is no point in doing it. That’s something I struggle with, but so far I’ve been too stubborn to let it stop me.

Besides the talented group of writers at GQ — you and Charles Bowden come immediately to mind — who are your favorite magazine feature writers writing today? Who do you enjoy reading these days and who do you draw some inspiration from? Along the same lines, what non-fiction writers — whether it be music journalists, “New Journalists” from the ’60s and ’70s, or anybody else — did you read and draw inspiration from in the past when you were younger and just starting out?

For some reason, questions like this always seem to paralyse me. There’s a wide range of contemporary writers, in and out of magazines, who either inspire me or simply overawe me, but I’m also greatly dispirited by much modern magazine writing. The second part of the question is maybe a bit easier. Despite mentioning two music books above, I don’t think I’ve been much influenced or inspired by music writers – as a rule I don’t think most music writing is much good, though obviously there are exceptions. (It’s not a coincidence that those two books are far more works of reportage than of “music journalism”.)

The biggest influence and inspiration when I started out probably was New Journalism, and the sense of possibility it suggested. At the time I remember thinking that too many people were influenced by what seemed its surface tropes –- wild punctuation, experiential ramblings and so on –- and took it as a licence to skip corners and run wild. What appealed to me about New Journalism was almost the exact opposite: that its freedoms of expression had to be earned and justified by the most scrupulous and detailed reporting and observation; that its bold leaps towards a certain kind of truth could only be honest when anchored by a wide accumulation of knowledge and incident and perspective undeclared in the finished article. I also found Carson McCullers a great inspiration, though that’s maybe harder to explain.

Where and when was your first piece of magazine journalism or newspaper journalism published that was not about musicians or celebrities? What was that piece about?

When I first moved to London, as well as writing about pop music, I also used to report and write pieces for a teenage girls’ magazine, Just Seventeen, on surprisingly serious topics: nuclear disarmament, the crisis in teaching and so on. But what I’d consider the first sustained pieces of writing like that were for Details. This was the incarnation –- fairly different from the current one –- started by James Truman around 1990. For the first long, non-celebrity article I wrote, they arranged for me to observe (and, to a very modest degree, work) in the kitchen at New York’s Le Cirque restaurant for a week or so. This was well before the age of celebrity TV chefs and food porn; as some kind of guidance, or orientation, Truman mentioned George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I remember cutting up all these typed pages I’d written and moving the fragments around on the carpet, trying to work out how to structure an article like this. Details was the second magical place I worked at. Back then, they acted as though what was best for the magazine –- and maybe it even was -– was to present their writers with the most exciting and challenging opportunities they could think up; as if what gave them pleasure was to make your life interesting.

Before we talk about your current job at GQ, let’s talk about Rolling Stone. How did you first start writing for Rolling Stone? Did you like the assignments and pieces you produced there? Also, Rolling Stone is so legendary in the magazine world — did you ever feel like, “Wow I can’t beleive I’m actually writing for this magazine?”

I left Details very abruptly after being what I considered as very badly betrayed by the editor at the time; I had no work lined up, but hoped Rolling Stone might call – they had made a gentle overture to me a while earlier – and they did. I think they may have been a little taken aback when I declined their first assignment -– a cover story on the Dave Matthews Band. I like to think that I can be interested in almost anything –- and that almost anything or anyone, if enough patience and reporting are applied, can be interesting — but, though I’ve nothing particularly against the Dave Matthews Band and the one time I subsequently spoke to Matthews on the phone for a story about someone else he seemed both smart and gracious, at the time I felt this was something that was beyond me.

After that, I had a great time there. Sometimes it felt like my successes at writing cover stories slightly worked against me being considered for enough of the non-celebrity pieces I’d been promised when I signed up, but mostly it worked well. I’m not sure I ever thought too much about the reputation of the magazine -– I suspect, rather like thinking too much about the reputation of someone you are going to interview, it would probably have been a hindrance and a counter-productive distraction -– but I was certainly grateful of the opportunities and audience it brought, and the doors it opened, and in particular for their faith in giving writers so much space and freedom to try to tell stories the way they though they should be told.

I was there about six years, I think. Towards the end, a lot of the stories seemed to be getting shorter and too often losing the fight for space to girls in bikinis –- this was the height of Maxim’s influence on the American magazine market, which has since, thankfully, receded –- and it started becoming less fun for me. I was also fearful — perhaps around the time I wrote my second Angelina Jolie cover story (as happy as I was with both, for better or worse, though we only went shopping for rat cages the first time) — that I might start repeating myself if I stayed.

So I’m assuming that the high profile at Rolling Stone landed you a job at GQ under editor Jim Nelson. Did Nelson hire you? What’s it been like writing for GQ? Also, could you tell me what are your favorite two pieces you’ve written for them?

Yes, Jim hired me. GQ’s been a great place to work, especially as the kind of writing I like to do seems more and more like some kind of endangered species in the wider world. So many people seem to be losing faith in the worth of print and the worth of words, particularly when combined – sometimes, and in some circumstances, for good reasons, but often unnecessarily so, I believe. If I can choose three GQ pieces, the most satisfying have been one following for several months the lives of those living, and not living, on one block in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina; one, reported in Syria, about Iraqi refugees; and one about the extraordinarily dignified but cantankerous singer Merle Haggard.

Do you have any plans or desire to write a memoir of your time as a journalist or put out a book collection of your magazine journalism?

I struggle to imagine doing the first. The second I would very much like to happen, but whenever I’ve explored it I’ve run into a fair amount of antipathy from publishers towards almost all books like that (or perhaps towards what they imagine as a book like that). I guess, aside from anything else, collections of articles tend not to sell. But, looking back, I may not have been skilful or thoughtful enough in how I conceived and presented such a book; maybe I will find a way to be more so in the future. (But if anyone knows a publisher who might be interested, please encourage them to get in touch.)

Do you feel like you have accomplished everything you want to accomplish in your nonfiction writing career? If not, what else do you want to try?

Not even slightly. Most of the time I feel like I’m only nibbling at the edges of what I’d like to achieve… though I do find it hard to articulate exactly what that is. Certainly I feel I’m still only beginning to explore and develop a very particular kind of magazine storytelling that I can imagine in my head. As a reader I hugely admire New Yorker-style narratives, say, but what I’m aiming to do as a writer is quite different from that. Often, for example, I prefer to hide the purpose, or the point, of what I’m writing, instead of offering it as a steady through-line in a narrative. The hope is that, at the right moment, it may then ambush, or surprise, or simply seep into the reader in a way that is more powerful, or intense, or disconcerting, or real, or whatever particular impact seems most suitable. That’s one of the ideas, anyway, behind what I want to do. There’s more ways it can go wrong than go right, inevitably. (There’s a kind of formality in much of the best magazine writing too, and while that’s something I admire, it’s not something I aspire to or always find useful for myself.)

I guess I also imagine the next phase of what I do may be more about books (though I’m not working on one right now). Partly for practical reasons: as I’ve been suggesting, I fear that the prevailing tides pull against my kind of magazine journalism, and I’d also have to be stupid not to realise, albeit reluctantly, that to the outside world a semi-successful book seems a more concrete achievement than a hundred successful magazine articles. These days I also I often find myself straining against the realities of how long a magazine article can be (even though I’ve often been very lucky in that regard), and so find myself thinking in terms of longer, more complicated narratives. (What I sometimes wish is that there was a kind of publication midway between an article and book -– about 30,000-40,000 words, say. That seems a very natural length to me for certain kinds of story. But I’m dreaming. There isn’t. Right now a piece of non-fiction at that length is about as useful as a perfectly-realised 40-minute movie.)

But, having mentioned books, there’s one last thing I’d like to say. I really hate the idea, one that sometimes seems implicit in what some writers say and do, that magazine articles (disposable, constrained, compromised) are just second-class stepping stones on the way to the pure temple of expression and achievement, the book. I think the magazine article is a wonderful, near-perfect form for a certain kind of writing and for the expression of certain kinds of ideas and feelings. Its history in America during my lifetime is a remarkable one, and one I think should be cherished far more than it currently seems to be. (Yes, there are plenty of bad magazine articles. But there are plenty of bad books, movies, records… of pretty much anything we put our hands to.) To be honest, on a good day I’m simply thrilled to be any part of it.

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Three works by Chris Heath:

1. December 2006, GQ, “1 Block, I Year, 13 Houses”

2. November 2005, GQ, “The Last Outlaw” (Merle Haggard)

3. November 2007, GQ, “Out of Iraq”