Writer’s Workshop: Amanda Petrusich

RD: If you would, tell us about how you got started on It Still Moves, both from the idea standpoint and the business standpoint.

AP: I’m a huge fan of a lot of early Americana music (which I loosely define in the book as rural, indigent, twentieth-century acoustic music – so Delta blues, Appalachian folk, the Harry Smith anthology, that kind of stuff). But as a critic, I was writing mostly about indie-rock. In 2003 or 2004, I wrote an article for Paste Magazine about the places where those two genres were starting to overlap (the freak-folk trend, people like Sam Beam singing to Sub Pop, etc.) and the book kind of grew from there. I had a literary agent and we worked on a proposal and were lucky enough to find a really loving home for the book at FSG.

RD: What were some of your biggest fears or challenges?

AP: Oh man. Writing a book is terrifying, at least the first time around. I was staring down some massive, paralyzing terror. I have an MFA in nonfiction writing, and I’d written a thesis about pop music that was around 150 pages, but beyond that, this was by far the longest-form writing project I’d ever taken on – and there’s something intimidating about having that much space. It’s hard to wrangle so many words and facts and quotes and ideas. I was so used to writing 100 word record reviews. I had to recalibrate my brain to think on a larger scale.

RD: Are there any websites or other sources of reference you find particularly valuable while researching music or film?

AP: Nothing much beyond the usual suspects. The web, obviously, is a little tricky for hard research, so I stuck mostly to trade books, archives, and research libraries. There is one website I found about Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music – it’s called The Celestial Monochord, and it’s incredible. I’ve been pestering the author to write a book himself. Anyone at all interested in the Anthology should be reading it.

RD: Here’s a fun little exercise. Translate the following three sentences into music critic language.

1. Jeff Tweedy wore a pretty ugly green jacket.

AP: Tweedy was sporting a heinous emerald sheath

2. Trey Anastasio hit high notes during his guitar solo.

AP: Anastasio’s guitar squealed and squirmed like a wild hog.

3. Guns and Roses has taken a long time to release Chinese Democracy.

AP: Chinese Democracy is mythic!!!

RD: Speaking of music critic speak, what are your thoughts on the occasional criticism that music writing could be improved by more clearer straightforward language.

AP: Probably all writing could be improved by more straightforward language! Make every word do useful work, right? I mean, I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I don’t know if it’s because music writers are (obviously) huge music fans, so there’s a tendency towards really rhythmic prose with lots of extra words?

RD: Who are your favorite music writers?

AP: Ellen Willis for sure. Nick Tosches, Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Robert Gordon. Dana Jennings wrote a fantastic book about country music called Sing Me Back Home. I think Chuck Klosterman is a great writer, and I think Sasha Frere-Jones has done some remarkable things in The New Yorker.

RD: Must read music book?

AP: Nick Toches’ biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, “Hellfire,” is amazing. Also Ellen Willis’ anthology “Beginning to See the Light,” although it’s not exclusively about music.

RD: Being largely a writer for print, what is your stance on blogs?

AP: I read a ton of blogs, every day. I think the onus is really on print magazines to step up the game. They’ve got to do stuff blogs can’t or won’t or don’t want to do – long, thoughtfully researched articles with lots of access that take months to write – in order to stay alive. But they just keep printing…lists.

RD: Any last words of wisdom you would care to impart?

AP: I find it helpful to read criticism of all kinds – film, dance, whatever. It’s a good way to keep yourself from getting too formulaic about record reviews. And, if you want to do this for a living, learn to love eating peanut butter sandwiches.

Thanks a million Amanda. Since you were so kind for participating, I will answer your question about T-Rex’s Jeepster in this article for the times Book blog. A Jeepster is the the bastard child of a Jeep and a VW Beetle and they are awesome.

Also, if anyone is out in Brooklyn on Thursday evening, drop by WORD at 126 Franklin Avenue at Milton Street in Greenpoint for a reading Amanda’s new book as well as a reading by Dana Jennings from the New York Times.

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4 Responses

  1. Perfect idea for a new section of Hidden Track. Writing about music is a fickle, subtle art in itself. I’m so tired of the onslaught of adjectives that accompany most reviews and articles. And Ms. Petrusich is right on when she mentions that we need “long, thoughtfully researched articles with lots of access that take months to write” to revitalize the industry.

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