NORFOLK, Va.– This is the second part of my Q&A with writer Will Harris, contributor to The AV Club pop culture Web site, among others. Harris also has his own blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link.
This portion of the talk deal with making it work as a freelancer, as well as approaching Q&As by structuring questions and knowing how far to push.
Q: Can we talk about the nuts and bolts of being a freelancer? One of the things I always had to struggle with was getting the invoices out.
Yeah, my wife has been very helpful in giving me a wall calendar so I can monitor when my assignments are due for various publications, when I need to send the invoices out. I’m lucky a couple of them send emails automatically saying, ‘Please give me your invoice tomorrow.’ Otherwise, I’m keeping track as well.
Q: I have a client when I was in New York who was a good steady client, but, basically, they would forget to pay me. Have you been through that with various publications?
Well, with [one publisher] there were occasions when I was unable to cash a check. I had to wait. There was no money in the account. … I attempted to cash a check and was told there was insufficient funds in the account. For the most part, I haven’t had an issue with people not paying me in a timely fashion.
Q: When I was a freelancer, I basically had to do magazine stories to afford to do the newspaper stories I wanted to do. There’s a lot of working for clients you maybe would not [normally] work for.
For me, the only one I do is [writing about] real estate, which I didn’t love to begin with but have pretty much grown to live with. It’s not even difficult, it’s just so completely different from anything I’ve done previously or that I am doing, I just feel I have to change gears at the same time I’m getting all these emails from other people I am currently writing for – I’m literally shifting gears as I have to write the piece.
Q: You have to take this work sometimes.
It’s a steady check. I get it every two weeks. It’s hard to reject that kind of regular money.
Q: I’ve – more when I was at The Pilot – but I’ve talked to journalism students. One thing I loved doing at The Pilot was talking to the high school program they had at The Pilot at the time. And the one thing the kids talked about is how they were going to write this, and they’re going to write that, and that’s not the reality of what it is to write. Especially, I think, when you’re a freelancer.
The real reality is if you’re going to be a newspaper writer you have to basically surrender to whatever it takes to get on the paper and work your way to where you want to be. Freelancing, it’s a little bit easier to pick and choose, but you still have to have an amount of foresight as far as what’s going to pay the bills.
Q: You’ve got to make so much every month, no matter what you want to write.
Right. I was talking about this the other night. Jim Morrison, a freelance writer, when I went freelance I talked to him first because he’s one of the few people I know who have made a living at it. The first thing he told me was, ‘You can make it in freelancing if you can get five [clients you can count on] per month. You can build a budget based on that.’ I’ve fortunately been able to do that.
Q: In New York, I made enough to pay bills but I didn’t have insurance.
If my wife did not have insurance through Norfolk Public Schools, then I would be out of luck, and would probably not be working full time as a writer.
Q: I would never want to write for The AV Club because I would never want to be in the position of screwing up a site I read every day. [Laughter.] If that makes sense.
It makes sense.
Q: But one of the cool things is I read The AV Club – and you and I have talked about this before – but I read it pretty maniacally. I’m pretty sure I go there once, if not twice per day to see whatever Sean O’Neal is writing or whatever. It’s really cool to know somebody who writes there. I wonder if people come up and talk to you about that or just, ‘How do you do it?’
A lot of people around here don’t know I write for The AV Club, outside of Facebook, but I have several good friends who say, ‘How do you get in with The AV Club?‘ The best advice I can give you is what Noel [Murray, an AV Club contributor,] gave to me, which is you need to have an in, and even then there’s so many people who want to write for The AV Club that it doesn’t even get you that far.
Q: How much of the work is pitched to you? Or how much do you pitch?
I pitch a lot. I’ve built a pretty huge collection of publicist friends during the five years I was at Bullz-Eye, and the four years at Bullz-Eye while I was in the [Television Critics Association], and it’s incredible how far The AV Club name will get you in addition to the people I already knew. You just jump to a complete other echelon with The AV Club.
The biggest issue I find is a lot of the publicists don’t know what The AV Club is but they do know what The Onion is, and you have to sell it as being The Onion AV Club at the same time you’re clarifying, ‘It’s not the jokes. It’s for real and it’s serious.’ It’s kind of a delicate line sometimes.
Q: Could you talk about pitching? My pitches used to be letters.
It’s email. I get so many emails from publicists pitching me interviews. Some of them are not obviously huge names. One of the things I love doing at The AV Club is [a feature called] ‘Random Roles.’ You don’t have to be a big name. You just have to have a very long career. By virtue of that, whenever I even get remotely interested in a pitch for that, I send it off and it’s reached a point now where I’ll say 70 percent of the time they will be like, ‘Go for it.’ [Harris checks to ensure] nobody else has pitched it. I’m very sensitive about stepping on anyone’s toes.
It is literally a dream gig.
Q: The comments just go off the charts on that site, and they’re not always very kind to the writers.
They’re not, but there’s perpetual criticism about ‘Random Roles’ about, ‘Oh, how come you didn’t ask them abut this?’ I seem to have built some semblance of a fan base in the comments section.
Q: I think one of the reasons ‘Random Roles’ works so well is stories with big stars usually suck.
One thing about ‘Random Roles’ is it can be a big star. Like Mark Harmon, when I set that interview up, he was the number one most-loved TV celebrity, and yet I talked to him for an hour and asked him about all this stuff he never gets asked about anymore. And at the very tail end of it, I asked about NCIS, and prefaced it by saying, ‘This has got to be the longest interview you’ve done in years where you’ve barely been touching NCIS.’
Q: People who are character actors, those people tend to be, for me, more interesting, because they seem to be more forthright.
Yeah. I think they’re rightfully convinced they can get work even if they mouth off.
Q: One of the things I like about The AV Club, and your writing specifically, is an appreciation for the forms. Whatever you think about reviews, there’s an appreciation for an art. One of the greatest things I’ve heard in my life is the commentary by Roger Ebert for Dark City. It’s a great commentary, and I think one of the few film commentaries I’ve listened to more than once. There’s such an appreciation for film. I think you really get a sense that the people writing for The AV Club, too, they really care about the form and they find meaning in it. How does that work for you to get to write about pop culture?
I’ve been a trivia geek since I’ve been in single digits. … I was just eating this stuff up because I’d never heard of it and it sounded interesting to me. I’ve just been an obsessive about pop culture since then. The opportunity to write about pop culture for an audience that, as evidenced in the comments section, loves pop culture as much as I do, it’s an honor. And not one I thought I would ever see.
Q: Is it difficult to get people who have reached a certain level of success in the entertainment industry and get them to sit down and to ask them tough questions?
I’ve rarely been one to ask the hard-hitting questions. Not because I don’t think I could, but because I don’t think I have an interest in them. I’m never going to ask somebody a gossipy kind of question like you’d read in a publication like People or Us Weekly because I don’t have an interest in that.
If you send a reporter who actually enjoys talking to an interview subject or just is friendly with them, I think you get a better interview. At a certain point, if you are friendly with the person, they will open up about the stuff.
Q: Do you feel that’s what happened with the Larry the Cable Guy interview? You asked him some questions about a situation he had [with criticism from comedian David Cross].
Yeah, but I asked at the end of the interview and I didn’t ask in a confrontational way. I literally said, ‘I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you talk about this. I’m really just curious what you thought of it.’ As a result, I had another half-hour conversation with him. It was arguably a hard-hitting topic, but it was not a hard-hitting question. As a result, I got some really great answers. I don’t know if that tactic works for me all the time or some people any of the time.
Q: Do you feel like you have to ask questions like, ‘Do you hate gay people? Do you hate Arabs? When you make jokes like that?’ Do you feel that’s a responsibility for a critic?
I think it’s responsible to ask those questions. It’s just not something I would want to do. I’m very aware of the difference between a real person and an act. I’ve interviewed Andrew Dice Clay and I know that’s an act, but certainly it’s offensive to plenty of people.
Q: The thing that David Cross was kind of pointing out in Larry the Cable Guy’s act is that he goes for the easy joke.
You could argue that if you go back and read his responses, his response was a little disingenuous, you could say. Kind of avoiding the direct accusations in favor of being, ‘Why me? Why’s he picking on me?’ If I was a different kind of interviewer, I probably would have asked a harder hitting question, but I still got a better answer than a lot of people would have gotten. I just didn’t feel the need to go for it. That wasn’t why I asked the question in the first place. …
If it had been like a major headline story and I had an opportunity to ask him about it that would be one thing, but this was four years after the fact. It wasn’t like I was waiting with bated breath to find out what Larry the Cable Guy thought of David Cross’ letter.
Q: What I was going to ask about was actually structuring interviews.
When it comes to asking questions that could piss somebody off, I invariably wait until either the very end of the conversation or at a point in the conversation when I’ve developed enough of a rapport with the person that they know I’m not trying to be a dick by asking them. …
If you’ve got somebody on the phone where they’re in a position to hang up on you, you can probably wait until you have everything else you need first, and then ask the question.
Q: Have you ever had anybody just get pissed off and hang up the phone?
Ving Rhames, more or less. … Basically, it was for Death Race 2, the straight to DVD prequel to the remake of Death Race 2000.
Q: That’s the saddest line anyone’s ever said.
I’ve talked to a lot of people for straight to DVD sequels. I’m not going to lie to you.
Q: But no other film can claim that superlative.
No. So I think it was the day before or even that day and they said, ‘Oh, Ving Rhames is going to do some interviews.’ Well, I’ve got to get in with that. They forewarned me that they were not going to have copies of the video to screen in advance. So we talked for about five minutes, and we were supposed to have 15, and it’s going pretty well. I very casually and not trying to draw attention to it said, ‘I haven’t actually been able to see the film yet, but I understand you do such and such.’ Before I can even finish the statement, he goes, ‘What do you mean you haven’t seen the film?’ I said, ‘They haven’t sent me a copy of the film. It wasn’t available.’
[Rhames then quoted the Russian actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski as saying] ‘if you do not take your job seriously, I will not work with you.’ [Laughter.] So I wait to see if he’s kidding. Apparently not, so go, ‘Then the interview is over? I hope not.’ He says, ‘No, that was Stanislavski. I will finish this interview, but I think you need to, as a journalist, take your job more seriously.’ [The interview lasted about two more minutes.] I do take my job seriously. If they had a copy available I would have watched the film.
Q: What’s the name of the film again?
Death Race 2.
Q: Why didn’t you take your job more seriously?
Ah, again, I really have no more of an answer for you than I did for Ving Rhames.
Q: It’s not just a race. It’s a race about death.
The second race about death.
Playing us out is a trailer Stanislavski undoubtedly would have loved.