Making It in L.A.: An Interview with Joe Donnelly

June 1, 2018   •   By Tom Zoellner

JOE DONNELLY CLAIMS membership within a specific tribe of Angelenos, and one of the most vibrant: the East Coast immigrant looking to carve a living out of California’s cultural machine. With a gruff Syracuse accent and a manner to match, Donnelly maintains a role as the perpetual outsider trying to make sense of the weirdness around him. Yet he knows where all the streets go, and how to soothe a nervous publicist.

His profiles and interviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, The Surfer’s Journal, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He was the co-founder of an exceptionally well-designed long-form magazine called Slake: Los Angeles, now lamentably defunct. His new book, L.A. Man: Profiles from a Big City and a Small World, was released in April.


TOM ZOELLNER: Your collection aims to tell a story about Los Angeles from multiple perspectives. What binds it all together?

JOE DONNELLY: Well, of course, there’s me, for better or worse. It’s all going through my filters and my voice, but also, I think through my love of history, context, and subtext, which I humbly submit shows up in just about every piece, whether as seemingly trifling as a “date” with Carmen Electra, or the outsized impact of a wild wolf’s first excursion into California in nearly 100 years. I think, or, rather, I hope that the collection provides something of a document of the times and cultural currents in which the pieces are rooted, one that contributes to or testifies to the fiercely independent West Coast aesthetic.

What’s a truth about this city that outsiders don’t seem to perceive?

That Los Angeles is the capital of the 21st century in the United States, the place where the burdens and privileges of the transition from late-stage American capitalism, social and political orders, family structures, and, basically, the question of how we’re going to live together, are being confronted most urgently. I tend to believe that if the future can’t make it here, it can’t make it anywhere, and that this L.A. experiment is critical to determining what kind of future we are going to have. Whether it’s inclusive and expansive or whether it gets swamped by the wave of retrenchment that seems to be overwhelming the country and the world these days.

How has L.A. journalism changed since you first started?

Well, the digital disruption often seems like destruction. One could argue over the merits of the type of immersive/participatory, voice-driven journalism you see in L.A. Man, but it’s hard to argue that there are as many opportunities for engaging and compelling narrative journalism these days, particularly in Los Angeles. I mean, it gets done from time to time, and this city is still full of heroic journalists — I could rattle off 10 of my favorite without thinking too hard — but despite the infinity of the internet, the digital delivery system has actually managed to diminish the carrying capacity for journalism, especially locally. We used to have several strong weeklies telling stories that mattered to life in the city and on the streets. Not long ago, we had two large metropolitan dailies as well as a handful of glossy monthlies that often made space for substantial features alongside the information and service stuff. That’s just disappeared into the internet ether, to a large degree. Not to mention, some stories need to take flight, but it feels like too often, due to the economic and algorithmic imperatives of the digital era, their wings are being clipped. Again, there is still some amazing work out there, but I remember being a judge for the PEN USA literary journalism awards a few years ago and thinking about a lot of the stories, “Wow, so much potential.” But many felt stillborn, not fully realized. I mean, we did choose “An Incredible Story of Rape” by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong for first place, which then deservedly won the Pulitzer, but that story was a miracle. A collaborative effort between the two journalists, and between ProPublica and The Marshall Project. But, there just aren’t enough writers writing and editors editing anymore. I mean, do we do editing anymore? Writers and stories need great editors. I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside some great ones, but they are like endangered species these days. Los Angeles has been particularly susceptible to these issues — the macro issues buffeting the industry compounded by more than a decade of predatory and carpetbagging ownership of its flagship brands. We’ll see what happens, but the Los Angeles Times, which still has some great journalists doing some great work, moving to El Segundo doesn’t look promising to me. No knock on El Segundo, but I’ve seen this show before, when the LA Weekly moved to Culver City, and I don’t think history is judging that decision well.

What’s the right way and the wrong way to write a celebrity profile?

I’m not sure I know what’s the right way, but the wrong way is to focus on the celebrity part of the equation — unless the phenomenon of celebrity is central to that profile. I think for the most part, Lou Reed being an obvious exception, I met the subjects in the collection on fairly equal footing as a fellow sentient and vulnerable human being. Remember that, and go from there.

The formalism of the genre used to demand a pivotal moment where the subject would reveal something vulnerable about themselves. What is your feeling about this requirement?

I don’t know. If I ever knew about the formalism of the genre, I think I’ve long since forgotten it. I think formalism, particularly in writing, can be a fancy way of saying rote or standardized or predictable. I hope I avoided those traps. I think what I search for, more than a left turn at the end of the second act, or whatever, is an authentic connection to the material and the writing. If I can find one, the narrative structure usually takes care of itself. For better or worse, or both, I’ve never been much of an outliner.

Who is your dream interview?

Paul McCartney. Perhaps nobody outside of my friends and family has brought more joy into my life than Paul McCartney. He’s one of the most famous people in the world and has been for a very long time, but I still think he’s a bit unknown. I’d love the challenge of breaking through that force field he keeps around himself. Also, Gavin Newsom. Who is he, really? I don’t feel like I actually know this guy. I keep mixing him up with Justin Trudeau. Has their hair ever been seen in the same place at the same time? I mean, he’s likely to be governor of the most important state in the world and I want to know more, see more. I’ve always wanted to do a deep cultural history and profile of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, circa 1999–2015, arguably the greatest team ever assembled in any sport in any era and still relatively unsung and under-contextualized. I’m particularly drawn to Abby Wambach, a fascinating person who is one of the fiercest soccer players I’ve ever seen and who seems to have a complex inner life and story. Someone suggested road tripping with the president. I’d be down for that. A long drive to Texas with Trump. That would sort him out.

How much does the writer’s own perspective and personality go into a profile?

At least enough to be trustworthy and not enough to get in the way.

Readers can’t help but notice the attention you pay to surfing. Why is that?

Well, I could have done, and maybe will do someday, a collection of surfing journalism. I think surfing and surf culture can hold a lot of narrative freight in this region. One could easily do a history of modern Los Angeles through the prism of surf-related pieces, or I could, anyway. If you look at the surf-centric profiles here, and I think there’s really only a few of them, they are really about artists, iconoclasts, or outlaws and some of the foundational aspects of the West Coast aesthetic.

Can you describe your writing process?

I report the hell out of something and then I torture myself and everyone around me until the piece miraculously gets written. I used to smoke and inhale peanut M&M’s by the bucket and drink coffee by the pot and procrastinate and work into the wee hours and get really unhealthy and strung out and then finish and rest and recover. Now, I have a family and a day job and my time is hardly ever my own anymore, so it’s getting harder to ride that crazy train, so I’m trying to figure out a more modulated approach.

You’ve said there is great value in “not caring.” What do you mean by that?

What I meant is that I don’t care if you’re rich or famous or beautiful. Show me who you really are, show me what you have to offer, and let’s start with this conversation we’re having. For whatever reason, I’ve never been starstruck by stars, though I have been awed by people. I’ve also been lucky enough to work for publications that were not starstruck, either. Even if they trafficked in pop culture, they tended to be in on the joke. I think, in this case, postmodernism had its benefits.


Tom Zoellner is the Politics Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.