When it came time to interview the next member to be featured on our homepage here at theOffice, I decided to skip over the usual suspects – all those LA screenwriters – and instead get into the mind of a different kind of writer with a different kind of career. Enter Claire Martin. One of our longtime members, Claire is a freelance journalist who wrote the Prototype column for The New York Times for five years. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Los Angeles magazine, Smithsonian and Wired. She’s a former editor of Men’s Journal and Outside magazines and a former radio producer for KCRW.
When did you decide you wanted to be a journalist? How did it all start?
Well, I worked on my college newspaper. That was the first thing. And when I graduated, I was thinking about law school and so I worked as a paralegal in the Manhattan DA’s office which was fascinating. I was helping the attorneys prepare for murder trials and drug trials and helping them gather evidence and police reports and interview witnesses. That was actually my first experience watching how an interview was conducted. I talked to a lot of the lawyers and everyone tried to talk me out of becoming a lawyer, so I was like, okay, if everyone is miserable, this doesn’t seem like such a great idea.
I was interested in magazines and writers like Susan Orlean and Jon Krakauer who were writing for Outside Magazine. [Krakauer’s bestseller, Into Thin Air, came from one of his assignments for Outside.] I read some of those stories and I thought, how can I get closer to this? It turned out the magazine was based in Santa Fe, which was where my mom was living, so I got this idea I would try to get an internship there, and I got it! And I just loved it.
So, what do you like best about journalism? The reporting? Being out in the field? Interviewing? Or do you like writing the story?
I love the reporting, for sure. Writing is really hard for me. The reporting is… it’s like I get to satisfy all of my curiosities, you know, get paid for being nosy. Also, because writing is so solitary, and I’m actually a social person, the reporting is when I get to hang out with other people. There are some stories where I don’t necessarily need to do in-person interviews, but I always want to if I can. Last week I went to Riverside, which I didn’t need to, but it always makes the story better if you do.
In what way?
When you see things with your own eyes, you can write more evocatively. You have a shared experience with the person, especially if you’re doing the kind of story where you’re writing scenes. That makes a really big difference.
What do you mean “writing scenes”?
For instance, I was doing a New York Times story recently on this YouTube star and I thought it might open on a description of her place, this mansion in Riverside that her YouTube millions had bought. I could have described the chandeliers hanging in her entryway, the unicorn pool toy floating back and forth in the pool. I didn’t end up opening it that way, but…
Does that often change? You realize, oh, this is a better way in?
Yeah, I mean the fun part of the writing for me is that it’s like this puzzle to solve. There’s not one right way, of course, but you go into it hoping you’ve got some good options you can draw from. I’m a bit of a procrastinator. The shift from reporting to writing is very hard for me. I like to just keep reporting and reporting and get as much information as I can. If I don’t have a deadline, then I’ll just keep reporting. The deadline forces me to shift gears, but it’s hard for me.
What’s something you’ve learned from years of interviewing people? A tip for someone who’s never done this.
I’ll just say, some people are reluctant to talk to a journalist, but if you can get them talking just a little bit, and break the ice, usually they’ll keep talking. There are certain people who won’t even engage with you from the beginning, and they’re sort of a lost cause, but if you can build up even the tiniest bit of a rapport with someone, often they’ll actually talk to you.
Do you go in with a ton of questions or do you rely more on questions and tangents that just come up in the interview itself?
Tangents are always good. Silences are good too, because it’s definitely better if you’re not the talkative one. If you can sit with the silence, the other person will usually fill it in and keep talking. Sometimes you’ll get valuable nuggets out of that. I always prepare questions, but I would say 50% of the questions I end up asking weren’t on my list. And the story often isn’t what you think it’s going to be. It always changes. And if it doesn’t change, I start to wonder if I’m too locked in to some idea that I think it should be versus what it actually is. Am I really paying attention to what everyone is saying?
When you sit down to write, do you outline? How does that work?
If it’s a really complicated story, then I’ll do an outline, but what I do first is print out all of my interviews, go through and highlight them. That seems like such an old school thing to do, but it really helps me to get away from the screen and just go, okay, here’s what I have. I make notes in the margins and then I’ll either write an outline or I’ll just go right into the lead. And the lead takes me forever. I can spend days or weeks on the lead, because it’s the most important part of the story. I can’t keep going until I feel like I’ve nailed the lead. It has to feel a certain way and then it’s almost like it grounds me so that I can move on to the rest of the piece.
Do you go back and tweak it as you write the rest of the piece?
I constantly keep going back. Even once I’ve polished it and continue on, I’ll still go back to the lead every day. It’s almost like an itch I can’t stop scratching.
Do you feel like it’s informing your voice, like you’re setting a tone?
Setting a tone, yes, and it’s also helping me figure out what the story is about. I go into the reporting thinking it’s one thing, then I come out thinking it’s another, and then when I start writing, I realize it’s actually something else.
It’s funny, you know, there’s a similar experience in filmmaking. You first write the screenplay, then you basically rewrite it as you shoot the film with the actors, and then you rewrite it the third time in the edit.
Exactly! And for me, the story just really comes together when I’m writing the lead. The lead has to function in a very specific kind of way; there can’t be gratuitous information in there. It needs to have thematic components to it. It needs to get the narrative going. Usually you’re establishing characters, you’re setting the tone. I think that’s why it’s so complicated. That’s why I belabor it so much.
How do you normally get hired to do a story? Everything is freelance, right?
Yeah, so I’ll either come up with ideas and pitch them to editors or they’ll approach me with stories.
And with the stories that you come up with, would you say that there’s a general theme to your work? In film, you know, you can look at a director’s body of work and see an overall theme there.
Well, I think I’m drawn to… and this is maybe going to sound a little generic but… there’s usually some element of surprise that draws me in. I did a story about the Malibu Lagoon and this controversy between the surfers and the environmentalists there. I had heard about vicious fighting going on at the city council meetings, and then heard that one of the environmentalists got into a particularly bad argument with one of the surfers and committed suicide. All of a sudden, the stakes were so much higher in that community.
When I heard that happened, I thought, how did it get to that point? I wrote another story about a sheriff’s deputy who went missing a couple of decades ago. There was a rumor he’d been murdered by another deputy, and you know, that’s not something you hear very often, so I just felt like I needed to find out more about that. And then the story I wrote about the local preschool here in Santa Monica where there were these allegations of really inappropriate behavior between parents and staff members of the school. Sex parties, basically. I was like, hold on a second, what is going on here in Santa Monica?!
Okay, so, I feel like there’s a mystery component to all of this.
But also an almost absurdist quality, like when something reaches a point where–
How could this be true?
Yes, how could this lead to this? What are we missing?
Ok, so you’ve been a member here at theOffice for years. Do you like writing around other people? What draws you to this instead of, say, a home office or something like that?
I’m very easily distracted. When I’m at home, I’m standing at the refrigerator half the day. There’s so many ways for me to procrastinate at home. I focus much better when I’m here and around other people who are also working and focused. Writing is such a solitary endeavor. I’m a social person. I get lonely. It’s too much for me to be in my own head and also alone at the same time. And I just need to get out of the house. That’s a big part of it.
What about just getting your own office?
No, because then I’m alone!
Oh my God, should I hold your hand for the rest of this-
Don’t ever leave!
Okay okay, so do you have any rituals or anything you do when you write?
I have to make a new playlist for each story.
You listen to the playlist as you’re writing?
Music in your ears, always.
Yep, only when I’m writing though. If I’m reading transcripts, I can’t listen to the music.
And these are songs with lyrics?
It’s not distracting?
No, but I think I sort of stop hearing the words after a while because of the repetition from listening to the same playlist. This is weird, isn’t it?
No. I mean, yes! I can’t write to music with lyrics at all.
I make a different playlist for each story. It’s part of the transition [from the reporting to the writing] where I’m like, here’s my desk, here’s my computer, now it’s time to write. It helps with my procrastination. It helps establish a flow to the writing. It helps me get my mind back into the story because there’s such a close association between the music and the words. I sit down in the morning to start writing, I turn on the playlist and can get right back into it more easily. But the sad part is, by the time I finish a story, I can’t listen to those songs anymore, and if I ever hear them again, all I can think about is the story. Which, I guess, is kind of cool actually.
It’s very cool. YOU’RE cool. Thank you so much, Claire! This has been fascinating.