Joel recounts how he took his first steps into the world of journalism as a way to get noticed by his peers, and It certainly worked, his career which has spanned nearly two decades has seen him writing for Time Out New York, Time Magazine, the LA Times and most recently has wriiten his first book Man Made.
What was it that first inspired you to move into journalism or writing?
I think I just thought it would be fun both the writing and it being read. I think in high school it seemed liked the only thing I could do to get attention – I wasn’t good at sports, I didn’t play an instrument, I wasn’t very good looking, my options were limited. Writing was something I could do for the school paper and hope that someone noticed, so it was a desperate cry for attention.
Hey, you’re really good looking Joel, what are you talking about, I don’t believe that
That’s very kind of you but I don’t think anyone in my high school would agree with you. What’s weird is that people get better looking the more success they have. Like, if I were really successful I would be super hot. Go look at people who are really successful and look at pictures of them before they were super successful. Other than Zack Galifianakis it almost always applies.
Your first big stint in journalism, tell us a bit more about that and how you landed that job?
Well, I spent two years out of college fact-checking. I thought I could get a job writing pretty easily because I had some pretty great internships at a small paper, News Week.
Also I was really proud of the columns I’d written in college, they’re very similar to what I’m writing now, and I thought that would get me a job and I was wholly mistaken.
I spent two years fact-checking and then someone I’d worked with fact-checking at Martha Stewart had been hired at Time Out New York, which was this new version of Time Out that was starting and he got me an interview and I got a job there.
The difference between not getting paid to write and getting paid to write is bigger than any other. Moving to Time Magazine was an amazing step up, but just getting paid to write was really my only goal.
Has there been a person or people that you’ve met along the way that have really inspired or motivated you throughout your journey?
There is a professor in college who I didn’t even know, I hadn’t taken her classes and she read my columns and got me these internships without knowing me. She just liked my columns, so that was pretty amazing.
There was also a guy in college in my freshman year who wrote a humour column and I was like, oh I want to do that, people like that guy. His name was Edward Berkowitz and then of course there were just people I read who I just wanted to be, like Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jnr, Kurt Andersen and everyone at Spy Magazine. I was just like that’s the coolest job in the world. Those are the people when I was at high school that I thought, oh those people are so funny and they get to say what they want. They got away with saying things that you’re not supposed to get away with and that just seemed thrilling.
If you were giving advice to someone who was starting out in journalism what advice would you give them and what kind of qualities would they need to have?
Journalism is so different than when I started that It’s hard to give people advice. It’s much harder, there’s fewer places that pay you and pay you reasonably, but I didn’t have the option to just go onto the web and write something on a blog and hope that someone saw it if it was good enough. So that’s a big advantage, I think, now.
It’s hard for me to say because so much of it is luck and so much of it happened to me almost 20 years ago that I wish I had good advice to give people. I would say write a lot and write for as many people as you can and say yes to everything, but that’s pretty basic.
Obviously there’s a lot of journalists out there as well who are doing well but to achieve the unique kind of success that you’ve had, is there a secret specifically to your success.
I honestly think so much of success and life in general, is just luck. The fact that I got to write a humour column at Time Magazine is pretty random and it has solely to this one guy, Joshua Ramo who was working at Time, and Walter Isaacson who the editor who was changing things and hadn’t hired young people for a while.
I couldn’t recreate that, I didn’t make that happen that was just an opportunity that was there, and if I did anything I made myself one of the thousand people who could take advantageous of the opportunity because I was writing a lot, I was writing for as many people as I could, I was writing for the Voice but really it could have been a thousand people at least that Joshua Ramo happened to read and brought in. So I couldn’t recreate it myself, I certainly couldn’t tell other people to recreate it.
Through your journey can you think of one of your highest moments of your career and conversely one of the lowest points in your career and how you overcame it?
Oh, yeah, that’s easy. I think one of the highest moments of my career was after I left Time Out New York I got hired at Time. I continued to write this humour column once a month for Time Out assuming that none of the old people at Time could possibly read Time Out.
I think I was young enough for my view of the world was that it was much larger than it actually is and so when I finally got caught doing basically freelancing against the rules of my boss, instead of getting into trouble he eventually okayed it and let me write about stuff that was going in Time, and then eventually asked me to move the column from Time Out New York to Time.
That day that was the best day of my work career by far, that just seemed impossible and far beyond my dreams.
The worse day of my career – there’s so many! I’ve been fired so many times. The first time that Time got rid of my column, yeah, that was pretty bad. Entertainment Weekly got rid of my column; the LA Times got rid of my column, so I’ve gotten that getting fired phone call a lot.
Where do you see the value of taking the time to socialise offline and face-to-face, whether that’s in a work scenario or whether that’s with friends?
I would say that the vast majority of on-line socialising doesn’t have a lot of longterm value, because I can message a reader on Facebook or even e-mail three or four times and then they will meet me in person and they will remind me of this interaction and I will have no memory of it.
Names on an e-mail list or on Skype or anywhere, they don’t really register with me, they’re just words, but if I’ve met someone, especially if I’ve done something with them, I can remember people for my whole life, but a couple of Facebook message or e-mails…if they were interesting and you reminded me exactly of what we talked about maybe, but just your name or who you are it doesn’t make an imprint.
If you could be hanging out anywhere in the world where would you be hanging out and what would you be doing?
I guess why wouldn’t I be having sex with my wife? That seems the smartest thing to do. Can I do that?